Examining the NAACP’s charter school proposals on the merits

Travis Pillow

One of the first quotes in a new NAACP report on charter schools comes from a Southern California school leader.

The unnamed educator points to potential common ground: “We must celebrate success wherever it is happening and we must remain vigilant to guard against abuses of the public trust wherever they occur. A bad school is our common enemy.”

A few recommendations in the report and accompanying model legislation drift from that ideal.

They include:

  • A call for a blanket ban on for-profit charters.
  • A call for districts to serve as the only charter school authorizers.
  • A 10-year moratorium on charter schools run by larger management organizations — for-profit or otherwise.

Charter school advocates have issued swift reactions. They range from thoughtful to predictable.

But the specifics of the NAACP’s proposal deserve a closer look. For one thing, similar proposals have emanated recently from other groups, including the nation’s largest teachers union. That suggests these ideas aren’t going away.

Districts as the only authorizers

The states with some of the best-performing charter school sectors (like Massachusetts) rely on state boards to authorize their charter schools.

Dedicated charter oversight boards have the know-how to spot weak schools and stop them before they open. At the same time, since they don’t operate schools themselves, they’re less likely to clamp down on charter schools just to limit competition.

The NAACP, in both its report and its model legislation, doesn’t want state charter boards to have the authority to authorize charter schools. It argues only districts should have that power.

In Florida, that’s already the case. Some Florida school districts, like Miami-Dade and Hillsborough Counties, have charter school offices capable of working with good schools and blocking bad ones. Others don’t. And some districts have fought to block most of the charter schools that apply to open, regardless of their merit.

The National Education Association called for district-only authorizing in a member resolution approved this summer.

It makes sense teachers unions would favor this approach. They tend to want to limit the growth of charter schools. Giving districts exclusive authority over their potential competitors is one way to do that. Unions also tend to fight to concentrate power at the district level. They oppose efforts to shift power to the school level, or efforts by state and federal officials to intervene in districts. Districts, after all, are where unions negotiate collective bargaining agreements. That’s where they have the most influence.

It’s less clear why the civil rights organization would want the same thing.

The NAACP report quotes a charter school leader who praises oversight in New York, but argues other states need to set a “higher bar” for charter school performance. New York only allows its Board of Regents and a state university to authorize new charter schools.

That charter school leader may have been onto something. Some education reformers would like to push Florida toward a New York or Massachusetts-style authorizing system. It’s hard to see how a push in the other direction would improve the quality of public schools.

A ban on for-profit providers

The NAACP report and the accompanying model law call for a ban on for-profit charter schools.

At one point, the report quotes Florida charter school principal Donyale McGhee, who testified at the NAACP’s Orlando hearing. She talked about the high graduation rates at her school in North Fort Lauderdale. The report suggests results at schools like hers could be a product of “cream-skimming” and pushing out struggling students.

But data suggests there’s more to it.

McGhee’s school is part of the Somerset Academy network. It’s a nonprofit tied to the for-profit management company Academica. A fresh study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes finds Academica’s overall impact on reading and math test scores is mixed.

But the CREDO study shows students in the Somerset network outperform comparable traditional public school students in both subjects, and the results are statistically significant. In other Academica-affiliated networks, like Mater Academy and Doral Academy, results are stronger still.

The same study shows other for-profit networks, like scandal-plagued Newpoint Education Partners, have disastrous results.

In other words, in the spirit of the unnamed educator quoted early in the NAACP’s report, it should be possible to celebrate the success at Somerset, and guard against abuses of the public trust at networks like Newpoint.

What the report gets right

The NAACP calls for better charter school oversight. It wants equitable funding and more transparency.

Those changes would likely strengthen the public education system. They would also help the charter school movement.

Equitable funding would give schools the resources and incentives to serve children in high-needs areas. The NAACP report suggests this should be a priority:

Districts should use their charter authorizing and renewal role to monitor the supply of schools across the district—particularly in cities where many communities lack neighborhood schools—and ensure that high-quality schools open in neighborhoods that most need them.

Florida education officials seem to agree.

Transparency can help prevent scandals. Cases of fraud and theft in Florida inspired reforms, like a requirement that all charter schools publish financial audits.

A common academic accountability system, like Florida’s A-F grades, which apply to all public schools, won’t stop critics from claiming charter schools aren’t held accountable. But it does render those charges hollow.

And charter-heavy public schools systems in Washington and New Orleans offer a blueprint to address the NAACP’s concerns that struggling students are too easily expelled or pushed out of charter schools.

In other words, it’s possible improved oversight can achieve the ends the NAACP seeks more effectively than blanket bans.

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