Take a Stand: Our Response to the NAACP

Take a Stand: Our Response to the NAACP


September 29, 2016


Howard calls on NAACP to reconsider its proposal and debunks several myths about charter schools.

September 29, 2016. Antioch, TN. In light of the NAACP’s proposal for a national moratorium on charter schools, I have given serious consideration to the NAACP’s concerns about charter schools. As the Executive Director of Intrepid College Prep Schools, a growing network of high-performing charter schools in Nashville, I am very concerned about the negative impact that such a decision would have on the families we serve and the students that chose excellence when they chose our school. African-American students at Intrepid College Prep are among the fastest growing students in the state of Tennessee. Intrepid College Prep received a 2015 designation as a Tennessee Reward School, placing our school in the top 5% for academic growth. This means that a day of learning at Intrepid College Prep is more valuable to student outcomes than a day at 95% of other public schools in Tennessee. That means something.

Over the last five years as Founder and Executive Director of Intrepid College Prep Schools, if I have learned anything, it is that the organizational practices and instructional pedagogy that have made our school successful are replicable in traditional public schools if districts empower principals in three chief ways — autonomy and accountability for talent, autonomy and accountability for curriculum, and autonomy and accountability for financial responsibility. Charter schools have been a vehicle to provide this type of autonomy and accountability to low-income and minority communities. A moratorium on charter schools would signal that the very elements that are ripe for replication are not essential to excellent schools. Autonomy and accountability are essential to replicable success in public education.

While the NAACP’s concerns about charter school sector growth are well-considered, I would like to offer the following perspective on 5 concerns that the NAACP has raised.

1. Targeting of poor communities. The NAACP has said this targeting mirrors the “predatory lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage disaster,” putting schools and communities impacted by these practices at great risk of loss and harm. 

The predatory lending practices that were masked as “democratizing” homeownership represented a collapse of standards –both for loan origination and the securitization and trading of these financial instruments. Urban charter schools have proliferated in low-income and underserved neighborhoods to elevate standards for teaching, learning, and student achievement. Beside the fact that such a comparison demonstrates a limited understanding of the global financial crisis and the role that subprime mortgages played in precipitating it, the comparison is also unhelpfully hyperbolic at a time when we are trying to increase the amount of information that African-Americans have about their local schools and the choices they have to make when they educate their children.

2. Anti-democratic practices. Charter proponents tell lawmakers, who authorize their creation and expansion, they cannot achieve desired results unless freed from government oversight and regulation. That translates to replacing locally elected school boards with private boards, keeping those meetings private, not releasing documents, being exempt from bidding for contracts, being exempt from hiring credentialed teachers, etc.

Over the 25 years of charter school history and charter school operations, a patchwork of legislatively permissible arrangements have developed with charter schools being authorized and overseen by local districts and state authorizers. It is important to remember that each of these authorizing groups has a critical role to play in the development of a strong and accountable charter sector. It is in states and cities where those frameworks are weakest that one observes variable and low-quality charter schools. In Metro Nashville Public Schools, which has become a national example of strong authorizing, 66.7% of charter schools are Excelling Schools under the Metro Nashville Public Schools Academic Performance Framework whereas only 13.7% of traditional district schools have earned this designation.

Therefore, we would argue that the proliferation of low-quality charter schools — where they exist — speaks to larger issues about the variability of state and district authorizers’ ability to evaluate and support school quality in the systems in which they operate. It is disingenuous to say that charter schools lack oversight and that more oversight from authorizers is needed but then have those same entities disavow themselves of any responsibility for the proliferation of low-quality schools — traditional and charter schools alike — when they have complete control over that.

Charter schools must be accountable to the states and districts in which they operate. Charter schools have more, not less, accountability than traditional district schools because they can be shut down for poor performance in short order. In Tennessee, charter schools must report to the Tennessee Department of Education, their local district, and their Board of Directors progress toward the goals established in their charter. Charter schools must also earn the ability to continue operations by sustaining strong results through each renewal period.

3. Selective admissions. Unlike traditional public schools, charters do not have to admit all students in the district. They can pick and choose and many do, avoiding students with learning disabilities and those learning English as a second language.

This is patently not true. Again, because the patchwork of charter school legislation across the country has been designed to address the various needs of learning communities in each state, there may be some variance in admission and enrollment policies between states. However, strong charter legislation includes provisions about enrollment that call for open enrollment of all age-eligible students that have primary residence in the district where the school operates. Where charter school enrollment has been more narrowly tailored by legislation, it is often to give preference to high-needs students such as students that are low-income, or have previously attended a failing school that did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals under the NCLB framework. In Tennessee, legislators did away with that requirement in 2012 and so charter schools like ours, that choose to serve a high-need population, have had to be even more intentional about building relationships with prospective parents in our community so that we can continue to serve the high-needs ELL and low-income population that we identified as a priority for enrollment in our charter. Intrepid College Prep serves a very high ELL population by design. In our entry grade, ELL students make up 40% of students (compared to the district average of 15%. Every charter school except one in our city serves a higher population of economically disadvantaged students than the district average. This is by design.

4. Extreme segregation. Charter schools in urban America are among the most segregated in the nation, especially for black youth.

Urban charter schools began as a salve for the extreme injustice experienced by African-American students in schools that may or may not have de factosegregation but absolutely have de facto achievement gaps due to low-quality teaching, unproductive school culture, inadequate resources or a combination of all three. Providing families affected by these three chronic ills in public schools with more options has meant designing public schools where their students would get the attention and high-quality instruction they deserve.

While these schools may appear to re-segregate schools, the origin of Brown v. Board of Education jurisprudence was to reverse separate but unequal education. In its place, we received integrated but unequal education across almost all urban public school districts in our country. The existence of “separate but unequal schools” is no longer the most pressing civil rights issue our students face. The achievement gap is.

Charter schools across the country that enroll high percentages of African-American students have been found to reverse achievement gaps in Reading and Math. For example, examine the performance of African-American students at Intrepid College Prep, as compared to the achievement of African-American students at the traditional public schools they would have attended in our community. As you can see from the chart below, African-American students at Intrepid College Prep are the highest-performing African-American students in the Antioch cluster.

Additionally, African-American students at Intrepid College Prep exceeded the district proficiency average for African-American students by 26 percentage points in ELA and Math. African-American students at Intrepid College Prep exceeded the state proficiency average for African-American students in Tennessee by 25 percentage points in ELA and 24 percentage points in Math. We attribute that success to the flexibility we have been provided as a charter school to design our own curriculum, create innovative staffing models and allocate resources as we see fit. For example, we extend summer professional development to over three weeks of additional content knowledge support for new teachers.

5. Unwarranted financial perksCharter schools are given many taxpayer-funded privileges such as per-pupil subsidies, access and use of buildings owned by school districts, access to government borrowing and bonding authority, and many tax breaks, all of which have been used to divert funds from classrooms to the benefit of top managers, contractors and investors. 

Allocating financial resources from federal, state and local sources on a per-pupil basis is actually an equitable way to fund schools. Every school should be able to back into how many dollars they spend — per student. This funding method ensures that dollars are allocated efficiently and it prevents a school that may have declining enrollment or has not meet a stated enrollment projection from going over budget or using resources inefficiently. This claim is a red-herring.

As far as facilities are concerned, a 2015 report on facilities from the Tennessee Charter School Center identified that most Tennessee charter schools are not housed in government or district-owned buildings. This actually is an inefficient use of tax-payer dollars. Tax-payer dollars are used, in part, to fund the building and maintenance of public school facilities. Traditional public schools in Tennessee do not have to set aside money for capital expenditures on facilities because districts take care of that before a per-pupil allocation is considered. Charter schools, however, do not have access to district-owned facilities. Without the ability to share space with traditional schools that have low-enrollment, charter schools create financial waste by having to use their per-pupil allocations to also complete capital projects and lease or purchase short- and long-term facility solutions. We actually would encourage districts to collaborate more with charter schools in this area to save money for the entire system.

Lastly, we share the NAACP’s concern about “for-profit” charter schools. Multiple studies have converged on their ineffectiveness and the perverse incentives that may result by tying academic achievement to investor profits.

In conclusion, the NAACP should continue to dedicate resources to the study of charter schools and put a spotlight on educational practices within high-performing single-site charter schools and networks of schools that are reversing the achievement gap in our country.

The NAACP should give guidance on the strength of each state’s charter school law and make tailored recommendations to each state to encourage the growth of a high-quality charter school sector.

The NAACP should help foster collaboration between charter schools and traditional public schools so that schools can learn from each other to best serve the students in their community.

The NAACP should not call for a national moratorium on charter schools. That would impede the progress that charter schools have made in creating systematic changes to our education system that result in student achievement for historically underserved groups.

The NAACP has always been on the right side of history when it comes to educational civil rights in our country. I am confident that the NAACP will reconsider its decision here and continue to fight for methods and systems that work for African-American students.