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Back to School 2020

6 Sep

10,000 Reasons Why the NAACP Is Wrong About a Moratorium on Charter Schools

5 Sep

It’s back to school. It’s also back to the charter school debate.

In an AlterNet piece, Steven Rosenfeld outlined “10 Reasons Why the NAACP Is Absolutely Right About a National Moratorium on Charter Schools.” I had planned to write a point-by-point rebuttal, but Rosenfeld’s diatribe is more opinion than fact. I remembered the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan often said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Rosenfeld is entitled to his opinion so I’ll share a few facts. In Philadelphia, one-third of students attend charter schools. There are 83 charter schools, two of which — MaST Community Charter School and String Theory Charter School — have a combined waiting list of more than 10,000 students.

The Washington Post recently editorialized:

WHEN SCHOOLS get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working and share it with schools across America.” Hillary Clinton was booed at the National Education Association’s summer convention for that self-evidently sensible proposition. The reaction speaks volumes about labor’s uniformed and self-interested opposition to charter schools and contempt for what’s best for children. Now the union has been joined by a couple of organizations that purport to be champions of opportunity.

In separate conventions over recent weeks, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest black civil rights organization, and the Movement for Black Lives, a network of Black Lives Matter organizers, passed resolutions criticizing charter schools and calling for a moratorium on their growth. Charters were faulted by the groups for supposedly draining money from traditional public schools and allegedly fueling segregation. The NAACP measure, which still must be ratified by the board before becoming official, went so far as to liken the expansion of charters to “predatory lending practices” that put low-income communities at risk.

No doubt that will come as a surprise to the millions of parents who have seen their children well-served by charters and to the additional million more who are on charter school waiting lists for their sons and daughters. “You’ve got thousands and thousands of poor black parents whose children are so much better off because these schools exist,” Howard Fuller of the Black Alliance for Educational Options told the New York Times.

This information likely comes as a surprise to Rosenfeld. But his mind is made up; don’t confuse him with the facts. Indeed, he dismissed the editorial saying “it is deeply wrong to belittle the issues that affected communities raise—which is the basis for the NAACP’s draft resolution.”

The basis for African American parents’ support of charter schools is the fierce urgency of now. As income has become a proxy for race, they reject the notion that their zip code is destiny. Black parents don’t want their children trapped in failing traditional public schools because they live in the “affected communities.”

Access to charter schools empowers low-income and working-class parents to exercise their right to choose the best educational environment for their children. Fact is, black students make up 27 percent of charter school enrollment nationwide.

The bottom line for Rosenfeld is, well, the bottom line. In his worldview, charter schools “divert” money from traditional public schools. By contrast, supporters believe the money should follow the student. For them the bottom line is: Are students learning the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic?

Unfortunately for Rosenfeld and the NAACP, facts are stubborn things.

Without Accountability, School Choice Will Morph into Choice for Choice’s Sake

29 Aug

You know that moment when you have an epiphany. I experienced such a moment while listening to EdChoice President and CEO Robert C. Enlow at the Amplify School Choice Conference earlier this month. Amplify School Choice is a project of the Franklin Center.

Amplify School Choice 2016 Conference

Enlow spoke about school choice trends across America and the phenomenon of institutional isomorphism. He explained that over time institutions begin to look like each other. Enlow said that charter schools are beginning to look like traditional public schools, noting that public support for charter schools is decreasing. He warned that advocates are losing the argument for school choice.

I’m a longtime supporter of school choice. That said, Enlow attached a process to my inchoate concern about Philadelphia’s charter schools. To be sure, there are high quality charter schools in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, including Boys Latin, KIPP and Mastery. High performing schools show love not by merely instilling discipline; they instill in their students a thirst for learning.

Bad charter schools mirror traditional public schools with respect to student performance, financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest. In Philadelphia, the decision to revoke a charter school’s license is subject to political pressure. As a result, chronically low-performing and mismanaged charter schools are allowed to operate for years.

In 2015, Philadelphia magazine published this advice for parents:

It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to Google any schools you’re looking at, to make sure they weren’t once unexpectedly shut down or run by a CEO who pleaded guilty to theft.

Comedian John Oliver honed in on that recommendation in a recent edition of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.”

John Oliver - Philly Magazine

In an open letter to Oliver, Boys’ Latin Charter School Co-Founder Janine Yass wrote:

I have been involved in education reform for over 15 years in the poor city of Philadelphia where over 40,000 children are on charter school waiting lists to escape the horrendous public school system.

Yass added:

Yes, bad ones should close, but what about the bad public schools that continue to operate half full with no teaching going on?!

The response to bad charter schools is accountability, accountability, accountability. The importance of accountability was underscored by Colorado state Rep. Angela Williams during a panel discussion at the Amplify School Choice Conference. Williams said there should be clear and comprehensive accountability standards, and automatic closure of lowest-performing schools.

In response to my question about the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on new charter schools, Rep. Williams said:

What are the laws in your state that create a platform for accountability? We don’t need to be sending our kids to failing schools, whether charter or traditional public schools. I’m not going to stand by and send our kids to failing schools. Charter schools can be successful with the right funding and right governance.

On August 24, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the creation of a new office within the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Division of Charter Schools. Wolf said in a statement:

Charter schools play an important role in our education system, but that role must be accompanied by sufficient oversight. Establishing this new division within the Department of Education will allow us to maximize our resources to not only ensure charters are being properly supported, but that they are being held accountable to taxpayers.

Bob Fayfich, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement:

If this initiative is consistent with other actions by the Governor relative to undermining the viability of charter schools, regardless of how effective they are in educating children, then this new Charter Office is something to be concerned about. If, however, this new division is truly dedicated to listening to charter schools and improving public education for all students in Pennsylvania, then we will be supportive.

The fact that no charter school has been consulted in the creation of this office is not a good start, but we will see how the office is funded and staffed and watch closely what it actually does.

Charter school advocates rightly question Wolf’s motive, but there is no question that school choice must be about more than autonomy. Advocates must embrace accountability in equal measure. To that end, they should ensure that a “platform for accountability” is codified in House Bill 530 which the legislature is expected to take up in the fall.

The promise of school choice was that parents would be able to choose from a menu of quality charter schools. And that competition would improve traditional public schools. In Philadelphia, school choice is morphing into two sets of low-performing schools with different governance. With rigorous accountability, charter schools will amplify qualitatively better choices.

Philly Back-to-School Blues

8 Sep

It’s back to school in Philadelphia. Thousands of students are returning to schools where there are no nurses, librarians or guidance counselors. And under the leadership of School Superintendent William Hite, there has been a precipitous drop in students’ performance on state standardized tests.

While there’s no money for classrooms, Hite found $1.2 million to hire bureaucrats for his already bloated administrative staff. Only in Philadelphia would a position be created for a “turnaround” artist whose former employers told him to turn around and get out of town. The Philadelphia Daily News reported that Eric Becoats resigned from his last two jobs “following accounts of his alleged misuse of public resources.”

Daily News Turnaround Boss Cover

City Council President Darrell Clarke has had enough. He sent a letter to Hite:

In a recent edition of the Philadelphia Daily News, it was brought to my attention that you have filled six senior level positions at the School District of Philadelphia. I am writing to request that you provide Council with detailed information concerning these positions, including a job description and the manner in which these individuals will contribute to life in the classroom.

Let me be clear about my concern with this announcement. As you may recall, during City Council’s consideration of the Mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2016 operating and capital budgets, you testified that you were seeking additional funding that would go directly to classroom support, including providing additional teachers to reduce class size and restoring counselors and nurse/health technicians. It is on the basis of your testimony that Council approved approximately $100 million in additional funding for the School District’s upcoming academic year.

Clarke added:

Given this background, I think it is important to understand how the hiring of these six individuals will enhance the educational experience of Philadelphia’s children.

It’s true that trouble doesn’t last always. However, that truism doesn’t apply to a school district whose superintendent inherited a fiscal hole and kept digging.