Fairness of Charter Schools Debated at Forum

By Jim Campbell

Last October, the Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest civil rights organizations, called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools. The board’s resolution maintained that charter schools have contributed to increased segregation and that “weak oversight of charter schools have put students at risk of harm, public funds at risk of being wasted and further erodes local control of public education.”

“We are moving forward (on the moratorium) to require that charter schools receive the same level of oversight, civil rights protections and provide the same level of transparency that we require of traditional  public schools,” said Roslyn Brock, board chair.

Charter School Debate Panel
Charter School Debate Panel

Charter schools are independent public schools organized by a group of citizens with authorization from a chartering agency. An authorizer can be a local school district, state department of education or university. Charters have more flexibility and are generally free from many of the bureaucratic rules governing traditional schools, and their numbers are growing rapidly.

There are more than 6,700 charter schools in 43 states serving 3 million students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charters Schools. In many large cities including New Orleans, Kansas City, Missouri and Washington, D.C., more than 40 percent of students attend a charter school. The alliance estimates that the number of schools will increase to 10,000 by 2020.

The NAACP’s action was the focus of a recent public forum, “Do Charter Schools Advance or Impede Civil Rights?” Hosted by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, the event featured Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau; Matthew Cregor, education project director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice; Gerard Robinson, resident fellow at the American Enterprise institute; and Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Institute for Education Policy.

Shelton said the NAACP saw potential in charter schools for minority students to succeed when they were first introduced in 1992, but it’s gone unrealized. “Many of our members now feel that the flexibility that we initially saw as a good thing has been used to undercut existing standards,” she said.

He described how a principal of one school took away the requirement that teachers have bachelor’s degrees and instead substituted AA degrees.

“When you look at many African-American communities, you see many failing charter schools.”

Cregor said the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights had joined with the NAACP to fight a lawsuit in Massachusetts aimed at increasing the number of charter schools. Attorneys for the Lawyers’ Committee argued that charters drain millions of dollars from traditional schools, serve fewer students with disabilities and English Language Learners, and take tougher disciplinary action against students of color than traditional public schools.

In 2013, he co-authored the report, “Not Measuring Up: The State of School Discipline in Massachusetts,” which found that black and Latino students were at least three time more likely to be disciplined than their white or Asian peers. The suit also claimed that charters drain millions of dollars from traditional schools, making it harder to serve those students who are turned away.

When the judge dismissed the suit, Cregor said, “Our school-funding laws were meant to ensure schools can serve all students. This lawsuit would have sliced right through that safety net.”

He told Boston.com, an online news service, that “we’re not anti-charter, but we have to wonder what would happen to students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities who are not being served by charters if the cap was lifted.”

Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise institute, helped to found a charter school and, as commissioner of education for Florida and Virginia, has been in charge of regulating charter schools. A strong supporter of charters, he argues that “school reform should include both traditional and charter schools – it should be and, not or.”

He said it’s important to remember that traditional schools have a long history of failing to meet the academic needs of minority students. He gave several examples where state governments have taken control of urban school systems due to poor performance, malfeasance or financial mismanagement in such cities as Detroit, Newark and Baltimore.

On charter schools, Robinson has written, “In numerous communities throughout the nation, these innovative tuition-free public schools, which provide administrative flexibility to a school’s staff and a rich learning environment with high expectations for its students, are making notable strides in advancing black student achievement.”

Berner referred to research on charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. In 2009, the center found little difference in achievement levels between students attending traditional public schools and charters. Recent CREDO studies, according to Berner, are showing that charter schools in high-poverty urban districts are demonstrating success in eliminating the achievement gap between white and black students.

Shelton said the NAACP would like to come up with a set of “clear guidelines and a set of minimal national standards of how things should be done in charter schools in such areas as class size, teacher qualification and time spent on instruction.”

The group is holding hearings in several cities around the country to get grassroots reaction. He expects to develop a set of recommendations to take to the board in the next six months and have the process completed with board approval within a year.

“The moratorium is only temporary until we get the new guidelines in place,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure that students get everything they need to be successful.”