As students prepare to head back to school in Philadelphia, the often-contentious public conversation about charter schools has reignited, with calls for a moratorium on their expansion by both the NAACP and the Movement For Black Lives coalition. Both organizations contend that charter schools are part of an effort to privatize education at the expense of poor, urban Black and Latino communities.
The groups complain that charters divert funds from schools that need them, lack transparency, and lack community involvement. This approach, according to the NAACP’s resolution passed in August, “puts students and communities at risk of harm, public funds at risk of being wasted, and further erodes local control of public education.”
To become policy, the resolution would require approval by the NAACP's national board in the fall.
In recent years, charter schools have become a hot-button issue because they are privately managed, but funded with public dollars. Those looking for reasons for the controversy need to look no further than Philadelphia, where charters and the School District must share a pot of money inadequate to the city's educational needs.
This fiscal year, Philadelphia will spend about $875 million, close to a third of its education budget, on charters. The District's eight-person charter office must monitor and evaluate more than 80 charter schools. And the law is murkier on what information charters must disclose. According to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, many laws and regulations that apply to school districts "do not apply to charter schools."
Inadequate oversight has led to reports of questionable management of funds.
In the spring, the charter management company Scholar Academies pulled out of Kenderton Elementary, a former District school that it had operated under the Renaissance schools turnaround initiative. Scholar Academies cited “fiscal constraints,” blaming the cost of providing special education services. Shortly after, the company announced plans to open another location in Tennessee.
In 2014, Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, a K-8 school in Northern Liberties, shut down over the winter break, leaving hundreds of students without a school to attend after the break ended. According to reports, the District found numerous “financial irregularities” at the school, totaling close to $6 million owed to the District. A court order to pay $1.5 million of the debt was enough to force the school to close its doors.
Some charter school malfeasance has been found to be criminal. In 2012, two administrators from New Media Technology Charter School were sentenced to prison for fraud and embezzling over $500,000 in taxpayer money from the school.
In addition to questions about financial management, charter schools have been the target of complaints about student discipline tactics.
In March, a study conducted by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, part of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, found that two Philadelphia charter schools were among the nation’s 10 public charter schools with the largest discipline gaps when it comes to suspending students with disabilities.
Looking at the country’s 5,250 charter schools, researchers analyzed disciplinary data, looking for disparities in suspension rates for different racial groups and students with disabilities.
The research, which included 80 charters in Philadelphia, focused on out-of-school suspensions during the 2011-12 school year in elementary and secondary schools. In the study, researchers found that Black students are suspended at higher rates than White students and that students with disabilities are suspended at higher rates than non-disabled students. Black students were more than three times as likely to be suspended compared to their White peers.
A disproportionate level of suspensions was documented at high-performing charter schools, leading researchers to raise the possibility that “some charter schools are artificially boosting their test scores or graduation rates by using harsh discipline to discourage lower-achieving youth from continuing to attend.”
The study also compared suspension rates at traditional public schools with the rates at charter schools. Overall, they found that charters suspended students at a slightly higher rate. The average suspension rate for all charter schools combined was 7.8 percent, and for traditional public schools, it was 6.1 percent.
Not public vs. charter
For Julian Vasquez Heilig, education chair of the California NAACP, a moratorium on charter expansion just makes sense.
“Look, we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on charter schools,” said Vasquez Heilig, who is also a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of California in Sacramento. “Seven percent of all schools in the United States are now charter schools. So if we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, we need to stop and take stock.”
At the beginning of August, days after the NAACP released its resolution, the Movement For Black Lives released its Vision for Black Lives platform, which also took aim at charter schools.
The movement is a coalition of 50 grassroots social justice organizations from across the country that includes #BlackLivesMatter and Journey For Justice, a group that also influenced the NAACP’s resolution.
The platform lists six demands for racial justice, calling for reparations, reallocation of investments, political power, economic justice, an end to the war on Black people, and community control.
In the category of community control, the platform demands “an end to the privatization of education,” and calls for it to be replaced with “real community control by parents, students and community members of schools.”
The platform names philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton Family, and Eli and Edythe Broad, saying that they have been among the masterminds behind the agenda to privatize education, with help from federal, state and local departments of of education.
“We’re dealing with big philanthropy, we’re dealing with corporate interests that create these charter schools," said Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union and co-author of the platform.
It's more than just "public schools vs. charter schools. That’s not the fight. ... It's the system."
Philadelphia is one of the most underfunded school districts in the country. The city’s high poverty rate and insufficient property tax base results in less revenue for schools. Add to that Pennsylvania’s inequitable state funding formula, which leaves the School District operating in near-perpetual debt.
Such deficits lead to school closings, downsizing of key staff, and poor building maintenance. Many District teachers, who have yet to renegotiate a new contract after three years, purchase school supplies out of their own pockets. These conditions cause parents and students to seek an alternative to District schools, taking per-pupil funding with them and further exacerbating District schools' woes.
Are parents being manipulated?
In Philadelphia, almost one-third of the students in taxpayer-funded schools attend charters.
But Rivera said that parents are being "manipulated" by a system that undermines public education.
“Black parents in poor neighborhoods in poor cities like Philadelphia are desperate for good schools,” Rivera said, “and they’re going to make whatever choice they feel they have to make for their children that’s in their best interest.”
The call for a moratorium on charters initially went uncontested by charter proponents. But then black pro-charter advocates mobilized, saying that the NAACP is out of touch with what its supporters want.
“The public charter school moratorium put forward at this year’s NAACP convention does a disservice to communities of color,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats For Education Reform, in a statement on the group’s website, “particularly the parents and caregivers who seek the best school options available to prepare their children for the demands of the 21st century. This moratorium would contravene the NAACP’s historic legacy as a champion for expanding opportunity for families of color.”
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 56 percent of the students who attend charter schools are Black and Latino – 29 percent Black and 27 percent Latino.
Charter schools offer education and career opportunities to Black and Latino children that previously weren’t available, Jeffries continued. And “research shows that black children benefit greatly — in terms of academic achievement and college enrollment — from attending high quality charter schools.”
According to a 2015 study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), Black charter school students in urban areas outperformed their district peers in math by 36 additional learning days and reading by 26 additional learning days.
CREDO also found that Black students in urban charters outperformed their White peers in urban charters in reading and math. In charters across the nation, they outperformed them in reading.
The study has been lauded by Black pro-charter advocates. It is often used in their arguments in favor of charter schools. However, the study was not peer-reviewed, and academics warn against overstating its results.
In 2013, the National Education Policy Center published a review of CREDO’s 2013 National Charter School Study, which used the same methodology as the 2015 Urban Charter School Study, where the reviewers found “significant reasons for caution in interpreting the study’s results.”
The study compares charter school students to a “virtual twin” created from a collection of test scores and data from traditional public school students. This method, according to reviewers, “may not adequately control for differences between families who select a charter school and those who do not, which could bias the results.”
Among other criticisms, they said that the approach that measured accumulated days of learning was "problematic."
Even if those concerns were set aside, the results produced by the study favoring charters are insignificant, said reviewers, concluding that there is little or no difference between results in charter and traditional schools.
The appeal of charters
Although the empirical evidence of their learning benefits can be debated, charters appeal to parents in urban areas for other reasons.
During a panel discussion presented by Al Dia Media in August, Alfredo Calderón Santini, CEO/founder of ASPIRA Inc., a charter management company, said parents tend to like charters for safety more than education. They view learning as an added bonus, he said.
Charter school growth in the United States shows no signs of slowing down. From 2000 to 2014, close to 6,500 charter schools have been created, at an annual growth rate of 11 percent. As of 2013, 2.5 million students — 5 percent of the total student population in the country, were enrolled in charter schools.
Researchers predict that if this growth continues, by 2035 charter schools will serve between 30 to 40 percent of the country’s public school population.
While the charter debate grows more heated, Sharif El-Mekki, the principal of Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker Campus, said he wants to focus on what both sides agree on.
“What we all want are better outcomes for our communities, for our students, and for our children,” El-Mekki said. “Whether they’re under our leadership or other people’s leadership, that’s what we’re united on.”