The Continuing Fight for the Soul of the NAACP

The NAACP was born from a marriage of convenience that has never been reconciled. White liberals and Black liberationists, like W.E.B. Du Bois, had very different visions of the role of the organization and its tactics. Those schisms are still playing out today in efforts like the misguided charter school resolution released this week.

But before we get to that, let’s go back to the beginning to analyze that organizational fissure. Let’s follow it through history, and see how it affects us now.

Early Contradictions at the Birth of the NAACP

David Levering Lewis captured the inherent conflict in the founding of the NAACP in the seminal Du Bois biography, “W.E.B. Du Bois, Biography of a Race”:

Since its beginning the year before the Conference on the Status of the Negro, the evolving NAACP had tacked between two divergent conceptions of itself; the first as a primarily white organization dedicated to African American uplift through well financed suasion; the second as an interracial phalanx challenging the mainstream public to accept ever greater civil and social rights for the nation’s historic minority.

There was a constant battle against co-optation in the organization and in watering down its work. Mary Ovington, one of the founders, described how most of the energy in the early discussions went into “trying to keep the conservatives from capturing us and getting money from the radicals to do a minimum of constructive work.”

This is a struggle that has continued through the organization’s existence. Grassroots Black folks often have a very different view of liberation than White sponsors. And it is one that trailed into the civil rights era and even today.

Who Really Drives the Ship?

Brother Malcolm followed this thread of internal contradiction, looking at how the “puppeteer had manipulated” the NAACP, picking fights within the Black community, rather than fighting to abolish larger power structures. (Malcolm drops some truth.)

As I have argued before, the education system has failed to serve Black children across all sectors. Singling out charter schools for derision misses the larger picture. It moves us away from real answers. Also, and importantly—it’s not what Black parents want.

Black families largely support charters and school choice. I challenge anyone to show a credible survey that shows me otherwise. And this not because charters do such a great job across the board. It’s more the devil and the deep blue sea—or the devil you know versus the potential devil you don’t.

The State of Black Education

I don’t see anything for us to be conservative about when it comes to education. The educational outcomes for Black youth teeter between depressing and enraging—again across all sectors. Just take a look at the Black Minds Matter report from the Education Trust–West.

Among racial groups, Black students in California are least likely to:

  • Become proficient readers by third grade;
  • Be placed in Gifted and Talented Education programs;
  • Master the mid-level mathematics skills that position students for success in college-preparatory math courses;
  • Be placed in a full sequence of college-preparatory courses;
  • Complete an Advancement Placement (AP) course;
  • Graduate from high school in four years; and
  • Complete a college degree.

And they are most likely to:

  • Be suspended or expelled;
  • Be taught by ineffective teachers;
  • Be identified for special education; and
  • Take remedial, non-credit bearing coursework in college.

And look at Oakland: A Black youth here has a 23.6 percent chance of even taking the classes to allow them to apply to the University of California and California State University (and that’s actually a huge improvement on the 2.9 percent rate of 2003).

The Contemporary “Crisis”

In the founding of the NAACP, Du Bois wrote the influential newsletter, “The Crisis”—and there were some in the NAACP who wanted him to tone it down, for whom the “thunder and lightning in ‘The Crisis’ seemed dangerously inflammatory,” as the biographer Lewis described the conflict.

Back to that old marriage of convenience and who would get the final say. For that chapter, and Du Bois’ relationship with NAACP, you will have to read the book. But there is a present-day chapter to be written.

We still have a “Crisis.” It’s societal, but it is deeply rooted in education. And looking at the NAACP’s misguided charter school resolution—which defies the will of the vast majority of Black families and overlooks the tragedy befalling the vast majority of Black children who happen to attend the traditional public schools—I can see who is running this marriage right now.

I just hope that the other spouse can find their voice, because our children need them.

A History Lesson for Randi on Black Education in America

America’s system of education was built for racial dominance.  Anyone who actually studies history knows that.  So it was curious to read  the Times article “Teachers Union Chief; School Choice Rooted in Segregation” this week, where AFT president Randi Weingarten singled out “school choice” for its purported racist roots, when a more accurate title really should have read something like “American Society Rooted in Segregation.”

This matters because if we care about dismantling segregation root and branch we need to start at the base and not focus on one small twig.

And while, yes, I agree choice has been used for segregation, so have district boundaries, the state militias, private housing choices, public housing policy, state and local laws, the supreme court, tracking, etc. And lest we forget the segregated schools that we are supposedly desegregating—were segregated by law—those are the traditional public schools, and they are still fighting desegregation, not with pickets and pitchforks, but neighborhood boundaries and admission tests.

So yeah school choice has some roots in segregation, but the American education system is deeply rooted in it. And to focus on one and not the other seems either disingenuous or just naive.

So let’s look at how great things were for Black folks prior to school choice and how well we were served by the “public” education system.

From Wikipedia:

The fears of slave insurrections and the spread of abolitionist materials and ideology led to radical restrictions on gatherings, travel, and—of course—literacy. The ignorance of the slaves was considered necessary to the security of the slaveholders[4] Not only did owners fear the spread of specifically abolitionist materials, they did not want slaves to question their authority; thus, reading and reflection were to be prevented at any cost.

Each state responded differently to the insurrection. While Mississippi already had laws designed to prevent slave literacy, in 1841 the state legislature passed a law that required all free African-Americans to leave the state so that they would not be able to educate or incite the slave population. …While states like South Carolina and Georgia had not developed legislation that prohibited education for slaves, other, more moderate states responded directly to the 1821 revolt. In 1833, Alabama enacted a law that fined anyone who undertook a slave’s education between $250 and $550; the law also prohibited any assembly of African-Americans—slave or free—unless five slave owners were present or an African-American preacher had previously been licensed by an approved denomination.

Even North Carolina, which had previously allowed free African-American children to attend schools alongside whites, eventually responded to fears of insurrection. By 1836, the public education of all African-Americans was strictly prohibited.

These were the laws of the land, public schools were not meant to liberate Blacks, we were deliberately kept ignorant. Some might say we still are.

Formal segregation was the norm in the North and the South in the traditional public schools, and even after Brown v Board of Education and the Supreme Court’s recognition that separate was inherently unequal.  The traditional public schools remained segregated through a thousand clever legal mechanisms.  And traditional public schools are becoming increasingly segregated as we speak, which apparently is not a concern.

From US News:

A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows that from school years 2000-2001 to 2013-2014, the percentage of all K-12 public schools that had high percentages of poor and black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent.Moreover, these schools were incredibly racially and economically concentrated: 75 to 100 percent of the students were black or Hispanic and poor.

Segregation is a problem. The use of public resources to privilege the privileged and further disadvantage the disadvantaged is shameful and should be discouraged, in whatever guise it appears. These are not “choice” problems, they are American problems. And racism and segregation are as American as apple pie, and have been around even longer than it.

To address this we don’t need scapegoats, we need honesty—so yeah, choice in some cases has contributed to segregation, but so has everything else in the U.S. education system. And if we are looking for solutions we need to focus on the problems, not scoring political points.

 

2 Big Takeaways in the Latest Charter and District Comparisons in Oakland

If you haven’t seen Informing Equity: Student Need, Spending and Resource Use in Oakland’s Public Schools, you should.

It is a critical first step in understanding what is happening in the difference public education sectors in Oakland and across the range of schools. I will excerpt the reports own big takeaways, but there are two critical ones I want to start with.

The Sectors Need to Talk

First, we need to talk, and share data across public school sectors in Oakland. Charters are more than a bit player—at roughly 30 percent of public school students—and the collection and thoughtful comparison of data is a critical step in understanding better what is actually happening, and then what we can do about it.

This effort to actually share across sectors, conducted jointly by The Oakland Achieves Partnership and Education Resource Strategies, was the most collaborative I’ve seen in Oakland.

I know there are critics to district–charter collaboration, but this should be evidence against that position.

This was the work of the Public Schools Equity Pledge or the Public Pledge or whatever it’s called now in its dormant state. But cutting off lines of communication or collaboration, may draw a line in the sand, but it does not help students, families, or the public to understand what is actually happening. And the average family is much less concerned with the governance model, or charter versus district, than they are with the quality of the school. They want the sectors to talk and to provide better information.

Digging Deeper for Insights

Second, this first round of data really does not answer many questions. It should get us asking them. And I have already heard the back and forth start.

Are the lower special education numbers in some charters because they don’t enroll students or because they serve students well without referring them for special education services or because the district over-refers, and tends to put more children in special day classes? For each area of the report there are arguments for and against, but now at least we are in a position to do the next level of analysis—and start asking the why questions, based on valid data.

And there is extremely wide variation across both public school sectors, with some charters vastly over-representing high needs students and others vastly under-representing, same with the district schools. So the sector generalities really don’t apply to any individual school.

The Report’s Key Findings

The report had three big findings. From the report:

This study examines district-run and charter schools in Oakland across three dimensions: (1) student need, (2) resource levels, and (3) resource use. We analyzed data for the 2014-15 school year from every school run by Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), as well as 32 charter schools, which serve 88 percent of all the charter school students in Oakland. In some cases, we also compared Oakland to a set of peer districts from around California or around the country.

On high-needs students:

Student Need: Overall, the student population in OUSD schools had greater needs than did the Oakland charter school student population. District schools are serving a greater proportion of higher-needs students, in terms of incoming academic proficiency, students in need of special education services, and late entering students.

The report also noted some trends and policy issues that may impact the numbers:

  • Compared to peer districts in California and nationally, OUSD places 30 percent more of its special needs students in restrictive environments, which are more costly.
  • The state funding law that caps concentration funds for charter schools is resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue for charters serving high-needs students, making it more challenging for charters to serve them.

So, while charters do serve more low-income students and English-learners overall, based on the data they do serve less of the highest needs students.

Part of this is a function of charter school lotteries, which take place in spring, and by their nature tend to disadvantage latecomers, who on average, will have higher needs.

But that means that as a sector we need to look at some of our practices and get creative.

Getting Creative on Charter Admissions

Rather than using a ranked waitlist, we could re-lottery a percentage of open seats in the summer, so latecomers would have a fair chance.

And we need to think about how we reach and serve foster and homeless students better. And while the charter school common enrollment system is a step in the right direction, and I know they did lot of outreach, I would love to see Enroll Oakland Charters going out to even more shelters, and partnering with more community advocates, working to extend access to our most challenged families. I’d love for our schools to also develop the specific differentiated supports that some students need.

We also need to look harder at admissions preferences for underserved students. These are actually pretty commonplace in New York, but not so here. Alongside a push to reform the funding formula, this would encourage schools to take those higher-need students and get funding for them.

Resource Levels and Use

The report also found that charters get significantly fewer resources than district schools, which may surprise some given the rhetoric we hear about rich charter schools.

Similarly, when we look at how the money is spent, one glaring issue is the amount of public funding spent on private rents—over $2,000 per child in the most extreme situation.

But in terms of whether the resource disparities are “fair,” we need to look harder at the data and ask some additional questions.

From the report:

Resource Levels: In 2014-2015 OUSD spent $1,400 more per pupil than the average charter school on operating expenses, adjusted for student need differences in special education, English-learner status and eligibility for Free and Reduced Price Meals. This adjustment does not capture other potential differences in student need, such high mobility rates and or the number of students entering school significantly behind academically.

Again, we have some raw data to start with, but not the answers as to whether these disparities in funding may be justified somehow. We need to do that next step of answering the question.

Resource Use and the High Cost of Private Facilities

The most glaring issue here is how much money charters spend on facilities and the wide disparities:

Resource Use: OUSD district-run and charter schools used their resources differently in several important ways…

  • Rent for space: Across charters, spending on rent varied from $190 to $2,250 per pupil, with those renting from OUSD generally spending less per pupil than others.

In a state where Proposition 39 gives charters the right to use district facilities, it seems like a waste of resources to pay landlords. Just imagine: that $2,250 per child could make a huge difference if it was invested in instruction.

There will be much more to come in terms of data and analysis, but I hope that this report keeps us talking and asking the right next set of questions based on real data.

That’s what families want, and it’s the only way we will move public education forward in Oakland.

Here’s the Test for Charter Schools Under DeVos and Trump

As school choice advocate Betsy Devos assumes the role of secretary of education, charter school camps have formed for and against her. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools supported her, while the coalition of independent charter schools in New York City (representing over 100 schools) opposed her. And in California, while school leaders have almost universally opposed her, the state’s charter school association is sending somewhat mixed messages.

This should not be a surprise. As I’ve said before, there is no unified charter movement. There are simply many different actors who see charter schools and the autonomy they promise as a means to an end. In the big charter tent you have liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. But as I will argue, the sector still has some interests, and this nomination offers immense risk and potential opportunity.

Support for Choice in the Community

Any credible poll will show that Black, Brown, and low income families support charter schools. Many communities of color also have long histories of alternative and private schooling in the face of segregated, subpar or no public options. And a likely increase in support for charter schools and school choice from the federal government through Betsy DeVos might help free underserved communities from sometimes weak neighborhood options.

Charter schools can be our FUBU schools (FUBU stands for “For Us, By Us”—a hip hop brand from the 90s), empowering communities to control local schools and deliver high quality, culturally responsive programs to our children. It’s not that simple, and it is incredibly hard work, but many of us have been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of the traditional public schools and wanted to do something different. Given the devil and the deep blue sea—we jumped.

Choosers and Losers

School choice is not a panacea. Choice by itself doesn’t necessarily improve quality or equity and may make things worse. There are choosers and “losers”—those who don’t choose. And the schools themselves may also start to pick and choose students, sometimes taking the “easy” ones and passing the more challenging kids on.

The federal government has a crucial role in setting some basic ground rules for equity and enforcing them. And because I don’t think we can trust local jurisdictions, those rules need to bend toward justice. Things like charter school admissions, charter authorizer behavior, as well as rules of the game in serving students with special needs or treating “minorities” with equal concern and respect. All of this can be influenced by federal spending and rulemaking.

And the secretary of education needs to be the secretary of all schools, given the reality that 47 of the roughly 55 million students in the U.S. go to traditional public schools, with 3 million in charters and over 5 million in private schools. Nothing D.C. does will change those ratios significantly. So the focus needs to be on that largest sector, and remembering the intent that charters would act as laboratories to feed practices into the traditional schools.

Evaluating the Secretary’s Reign-Quality, Equity, and Transparency

If, under this new administration, those of us who support charter schools sell our principles or forget who our master is, that stain will outlast any education secretary.

A rush to create more schools for more schools’ sake is an unwise one. Charters promise a set of academic and non-academic outcomes, and accountability is essential. Just opening the floodgates to more schools will likely reduce quality. And it won’t help families. (That seems to be the Detroit story, from my admittedly limited knowledge.)

Equity has to be at the forefront of accountability, for the sector to be credible and ethical. Charter schools have had some historical challenges in serving all students. This is a critique that hits some times and misses at others, but is equally applicable to the traditional public zoned schools or gifted-and-talented programs and specialized high schools. Authorizers and the public need to look hard at who is being served and who isn’t and why, with consequences for offenders.

Charter schools are public schools and need to be transparent with the public’s money and authority. I get that not all charters act like public schools, but they are and they should. And to build and maintain public confidence, we need to be transparent, and allow for public analysis.

The Charter School Final Exam

A school cannot serve two masters, to butcher a phrase. In this new administration, the charter sector faces new challenges and opportunities. But the real question that each school must answer is, “who is our master?”

In a time when many Black and Brown children and families are anxious, and immigration raids at schools are a real possibility, many schools and districts nationwide are declaring themselves “sanctuaries” that will defy the feds and won’t cooperate with ICE.

If that master comes calling, will the charters pick up the phone, or barricade the doors?

Charter schools were here before DeVos and will be here after her. The communities that charters draw their lifeblood from are here even longer, and communities have long memories. Charters sometimes are accused of not being of the community. If they want to assure their roots in the community, they need to pass this final test, and answer resolutely as to who their master is, lest short term gain turn to long term ruin.

 
This piece is adapted from one that ran in the Amsterdam News as Betsy DeVos’ Charter School Test on February 9, 2017.

When Good Intentions Go Bad, Opportunity Hoarders and Equity in Oakland

Existing rules and the dynamics of choice tend to increase inequality.  There don’t need to be any bad actors.  As parents we all do try to do the best we can for our children.  But that pattern of choices, and neighborhood assignment, tend to reinforce and increase the distance between children of advantage and those without.

I had some great feedback formal and informal on my last blog, Choosers, Losers, Abusers and “Opportunity Hoarding” in Oakland, and it got hundreds of views a day, Anna a thoughtful reader, noted

I think a main takeaway re: “opportunity hoarding” is that it can occur even when people’s stated intentions are to increase equity–as both those pro and those against common enrollment would describe themselves. See http://neatoday.org/2015/10/21/how-good-schools-and-good-intentions-widen-the-achievement-gap/ andhttps://tressiemc.com/2016/01/28/the-limits-of-education-reform-a-road-paved-with-the-best-intentions/

I wish there had been a more creative and (IMO) progressive solution to revamp enrollment on the table; as I think the writer of the second blog post would say, in a choice-based system like Oakland’s, we can be assured that those with privilege will continue to be “choosers,” regardless of whether charters are part or separate or combined lottery. For instance, what if all schools (district and charter) that would otherwise fill up at the initial lottery phase were required to set aside a certain number of slots for foster and former foster kids?

The articles cited, particularly the second one, are a bit wonky but insightful.  The short of it; the persistence and reproduction of racial inequality, within schools, and between schools won’t be solved by our current policies, and they dynamics of districts, schools, and parental choices only make this inequality worse.

We need to consciously work for equity and think outside the box.  I like Anna’s idea of a set aside for high needs students at the best schools, with transportation and deliberately designed supportive programs.  Every small school will not immediately be able to serve every challenge well, but what if all schools (district and charter), coordinating with the district and looking at needs, agreed to build out specific high needs programs.

So Hillcrest may develop an expertise and deliberate supports for a set of foster students, Montera develops an integrated program for students on the autism spectrum, Aspire develops expertise and an integrated program for dyslexic students, maybe every above average school needs to reserve 10% of spots, or the District invests in expanding seats at those schools where it makes sense.

We can enlist educational advocates that would volunteer to help non-choosing students make better choices with better fits, monitoring and supporting student progress and creating feedback loops for future choices and program improvement. This would take some coordination, cooperation, and policy changes.  We would have to look as one community at our children and what their needs are and try to better plan to meet them.

The system, and our individual choices within it (mine included), conspire against equity.  And anyone watching the train can see it plowing along, who is in front, who is in back, and who isn’t even on it.

We need to conspire together as one community of schools, charters and district, to change this.

I guarantee you it won’t happen on its own.