Archive | June, 2011

Andre Agassi on his charter school plans

In a weekend interview with The New York Times, former tennis star Andre Agassi elaborated on the motivation for his plans to finance the construction of as many as 75 charter schools in the United States during the next several years:

Every school, I will partner with the best in-class operators, so these won’t be Agassi schools. Now charter schools as a whole aren’t necessarily high performing because there are so many mom-and-pop shops, but the top 10 percent, the best in-class charter school operators, are incredibly high performing. So what we want to do is help them expand their footprint, and one of the single greatest impediments to the growth of charter schools are not the software, not the children or the teachers. It’s the facilities themselves. Operators cannot access public dollars in a charter school space to build their facility, but the money from that state is allocated to those children if they go to a charter school. So if you can find a way to actually build the facilities and find a way to actually create a return for investors, you have now access to a pool of resources that has traditionally never been invested in the space. So it’s very innovative, it’s very visionary and it’s incredibly timely.

… but Arete does it the right way in Georgia

Amid my overly academic analysis of the Southern Education Report report on Georgia’s flawed Tax Credit Scholarship law, I failed to mention an important and highly relevant development on the ground there. The law may in fact be overly permissive and lack sufficient accountability, but at least one scholarship organization is doing things the right way. It is called the Arete Scholars Fund.

Arete targets scholarships to only low-income students and operates with genuine transparency and accountability. The organization was just created last year by two men, Atlanta Falcons CFO Greg Beadles and Arete executive director Derek Monjure, who are in this for all the right reasons. They have voluntarily limited full scholarships to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The average household income for their students is only 15 percent above poverty, and three-fifths of the students are minority and two-thirds are being raised by a single guardian.

At Arete, parents choose any school they want. Neither donors, schools nor Arete has a say in that decision. The organization also verifies household income every year, and its own books are audited and it discloses full data about its students and contributions.

I was remiss to tell this important story, because our own tax-credit scholarship organization, Step Up For Students in Florida, is a partner with Arete. So I didn’t want to appear to be tooting either their or our horns. But now that I am toot mode, I will also share that the report did single out Florida’s tax credit scholarship law as a model for Georgia to follow. That’s certainly a source of pride for those of us who have worked hard to bring the right balance of transparency and accountability, and here’s what the report said:

“The neighboring state of Florida offers an example of a tax-credit educational program that has evolved and improved over the last few years. As a public-private venture, it has begun to require more effective measures for public accountability and educational performance from all entities and all private schools that take tax-diverted funds to support student learning.”

The missing pieces in Georgia …

The Southern Education Foundation’s new and scathing report on the Georgia Tax Credit Scholarship does veer into some unfortunate doctrinaire attacks on religion and race, but its description of the missing layers of public accountability is largely on target. That the report’s title, A Failed Experiment, turns on some unproven assumptions is, unfortunately, part and parcel to debate. The reality is that, three years into this program, no one can really say.

The report states:

The law in its present form contains a number of troubling features. It lacks transparency regarding contributors, beneficiaries, and the criteria by which scholarships are awarded or even the size and number of scholarships awarded. Nor do the schools involved appear to be subject to any accountability regarding the academic standards in force or academic outcomes of their students. There are no income limits for eligibility and, in the absence of a mandate to report demographic information on participating students, it is difficult to see how the program is meeting its stated policy objective of increasing the affordability of private schools for low-income families.

Though the report suffers generally from conjecture and overstatement, that observation is certainly credible. A law that was to serve low-income children, for example, does in fact contain no income eligibility requirement and no requirement that income even be gathered and reported. Worse, some of the lapses in execution appear to have been by design. For example, the Georgia law requires scholarship students to come from public schools (unless they are starting kindergarten), which is a common provision in other states. The report not only documents that private schools and scholarship organizations are counseling parents to beat the system by merely registering at a public school. It also features transcripts of a legislative author now telling schools he intended to create the loophole by inserting the word “enroll” as opposed to “attend” in the law.

Needless to say, this is no way to inspire public confidence. Private learning options don’t need to be held to precisely the same standards as traditional public schools in order to prove their value in a diverse and customized world of education. But these scholarships are funded by tax-credited contributions that would otherwise end up in the state treasury and they must be answerable to the public. That includes assuring the money is spent as intended and that the scholarships are provided only to the target students.

As readers of this blog are aware, we work for a Tax Credit Scholarship program in Florida. So it is no surprise that we believe fervently that these kinds of learning options are a vital tool for economically disadvantaged students who suffer enormous odds and have few choices. But we also see these programs as part of the public education system, broadly defined, and so the challenge is to find the right vehicles for public transparency and assessment. As this new report suggests, Georgia has a long way to go.

Black leaders from my generation won’t find inspiration at the NAACP

I made it a priority to join my college’s NAACP branch when I enrolled in the fall of 1997. But just a year later, I let my membership lapse. While I’m sure part of my disassociation was due to my participation in other activities, I do remember feeling disconnected from the 102-year-old civil rights organization.

I was reminded of that split after reading about the NAACP’s controversial lawsuit against New York City as well as the accusation from the group’s New York President, Hazel Dukes, that persons of color who support the decision to co-locate traditional and charter schools in the same building – essentially, expanding school choice – are “doing the business of slave masters.” Luckily, as the public affairs officer of a nonprofit organization that strives to provide school choice options to low-income students, and who also happens to be black, I didn’t take Dukes’ raw language personally.

By Tuesday, Dukes somewhat softened her tone in an interview with NY1, telling a reporter that she wasn’t against charter schools and that “parents have a right for choice.” The motive for the NAACP’s lawsuit, she said, is the pursuit of “justice and equality.”

But the lawsuit and Dukes’ initial remarks have cast the organization as out of touch and divisive. New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch captured it best when he wrote in his June 6 column:

The suit is proof of how low a great civil rights organization has fallen since its days of advocating for racial equality in the face of tremendous hatred.

… The NAACP significantly shifted the American racial consciousness in 1954 when it won the Brown vs. Board of Education decision before the Supreme Court. This began a systematic dismantling of Southern segregation once and for all.

So what has happened since? Not knowing when to hold or when to fold, the NAACP refuses to look at public education with any kind of nuance. If it did, it would understand that the UFT and its allies are only hurting the push for fair schools that began with the Brown victory more than a half-century earlier.

As a columnist for my college paper, I penned a piece expressing my frustration at the lack of baton-passing from Dukes’ generation to mine, asking the question, “Are there any black leaders emerging from my generation?”

In the years since that column was published, I’ve surmised that maybe it’s not prudent for my peers to look to the older generation for a tap on the shoulder. Dukes’ lashing out and the NAACP’s lawsuit reaffirmed that belief.

The political marketplace of charter schools

In his weekly “School of Thought” column on, Andy Rotherham considers the political backlash currently afflicting charter schools and walks away with two lessons that help explain the difficulty in having a nuanced and complex conversation about their role in public education today:

First, with 5,000 charters ranging from very traditional to completely online, the term ‘charter school’ is increasingly meaningless. After all, what does a network of schools like Achievement First really have in common with the mostly low-performing online schools run by White Hat Management in Ohio — the force behind the proposed deregulation there?

Second, the public can’t be expected to parse those distinctions, so the quality issue has more potency than many charter advocates seem to realize. The education marketplace is not an economic one with the best ideas winning out. Rather it’s a political one with the loudest or most organized voices usually carrying the day and the most compelling examples winning the public debate. So one spectacular charter screw-up counts more than 100 quiet successes, and the good and great schools can’t overcome the headwind created by the laggards.

Standing on the wrong side of empowerment

In a Wall Street Journal column today on the controversy surrounding the NAACP joining the New York City teachers union in an anti-charter school lawsuit, William McGurn writes:

For those who understand that our big city public school systems have become jobs programs for teachers and administrators, the NAACP’s response makes perfect sense. That’s because there are many African-American teachers in these systems, many of whom presumably belong to the NAACP … The NAACP is doing in New York what the United Federation of Teachers is doing, and for the same reason: protecting the interests of its members.

In an entry on redefinED last fall I discussed why middle-class African Americans feel such loyalty toward school districts and why this loyalty is fraying in Florida. Thanks to a variety of parental empowerment programs in Florida, African-American educators and local community activists are increasingly opening up financially-viable schools, and as these publicly funded private schools provide more middle-class teaching jobs, the middle class African-American community — which includes African-American politicians — is embracing them.

If the NAACP and New York City teachers union were more enlightened, they would understand that a centralized, command-and-control public education system is not in the best interests of teachers, parents, students or taxpayers. A public education system that empowers educators and local communities to create their own schools and empowers parents to match their children with the schools that best meet their needs is the best path to equal educational opportunity. Unfortunately both the NAACP and New York City teachers union are on the wrong side of history.

A misplaced faith in top-down decision-making

David Brooks focuses again on health care in today’s New York Times, and his observations have huge implications for public education. Here are his key points:

Democrats tend to be skeptical that dispersed consumers can get enough information to make smart decisions … Democrats generally seek to concentrate decision-making and cost-control power in the hands of centralized experts … Republicans at their best are skeptical about top-down decision-making … Democrats have much greater faith in centralized expertise … Republicans … have much greater faith in the decentralized discovery process of the market … This basic debate will define the identities of the two parties for decades … In the age of the Internet and open-source technology, the Democrats are mad to define themselves as the party of top-down centralized planning.

I am a lifelong Democrat and the Florida coordinator for Democrats for Education Reform, but I agree with Brooks’ critique. Certainly in public education, continuing to centralize power in the hands of school boards and state legislatures is mad because doing so disempowers teachers and parents and ultimately undermines student achievement.

No matter who is standing in the way

Kevin P. Chavous, a former Washington, D.C., councilman and board chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, reflects on the NAACP’s fight against school closures and charter school expansions in New York City, in light of a Harlem rally of parents urging the civil rights group to drop its opposition. Writing in The Washington Post, Chavous asks how we got to the point “that the country’s foremost civil rights organization is the target of a protest by the people it was created to serve?”

Elegantly, Chavous adds:

As an African American growing up in the ’60s, I revered the NAACP. I will never forget when my mother took me to a NAACP-League of Women Voters rally at Butler University in Indianapolis, my hometown. My mother was active in both groups, which, at that time, were protesting the presence of Alabama Gov. George Wallace on Butler’s campus. Wallace was an avowed segregationist who famously stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block the entrance of its first black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Only 7 at the time, I distinctly remember carrying a sign that I pointed in Wallace’s face. I don’t recall what the sign said, but I knew he didn’t want boys like me to get an education. As the police pushed me aside, my mother and her fellow protesters praised me for marching like a man for equal rights. Later, when my parents sat me down to give me my own NAACP membership card, I was proud beyond words.

I reflected on that time when I saw a photo of young black students at the Harlem march against the NAACP. I could see myself in one of those photos — a boy standing with his mom, holding a sign and making a statement in support of his future. I couldn’t help but see the irony: me marching with the NAACP against Wallace, and today’s children marching against the NAACP. It just shows that black parents will fight for the progress and quality education that their kids deserve — no matter who is standing in the way.