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In the black community, a division over charter schools

November 29, 2016 at 6:30 PM EST
With the election of Donald Trump, a big proponent of school choice, and his like-minded pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, the topic of charter schools is likely to attract more attention. But among African-American parents and the NAACP, the debate over school choice and its impact on public education is already a heated one. From Memphis, Education Week’s Lisa Stark reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: the battle over school choice and public education is likely to intensify under the Trump administration. His choice for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a big supporter of vouchers and charter schools, both of which use tax dollars that would normally go to neighborhood public schools.

The fight over these issues is already building within the African-American community. The NAACP is calling for a moratorium on new charter schools, but some black parents are pushing back against that.

Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week reports from Memphis, part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

LISA STARK: At Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, there’s a constant beat echoing through the hallways. And it’s not just from the African drum class required of every middle schooler here.

What’s being drummed into these charter school students is that education, a college degree and proper behavior are critical to getting ahead.

If I ask you to describe Freedom Prep in one word, what would it be?

TYLER VAUGHN, Freedom Prep Academy: College.

BRIANNA TODD, Freedom Prep Academy: Preparation.

TALY ORDONEZ, Freedom Prep Academy: Life.

LISA STARK: Senior Tyler Vaughn, eighth grader Brianna Todd and fifth grader Taly Ordonez all came to Freedom Prep after stints in traditional public schools.

TYLER VAUGHN: Since sixth grade, they always instilled in us that we would be going to college and we would excel in college.

BRIANNA TODD: It definitely teaches us to be responsible throughout out entire life.

TALY ORDONEZ: Charter school, it prepares you for college and life.

LISA STARK: Nearly three million students in the U.S. attend charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia, about 6 percent of all public school students nationwide.

But in more than a dozen cities, at least 30 percent of the students attend charters. As in many cities, African-American parents in Memphis are voting with their feet. This was a struggling elementary school three years ago, when the state asked Freedom Prep to take it over. The charter school came in. Enrollment doubled.

Charter schools are often open in poor neighborhoods, and predominantly serve children of color. And they have a mixed record. Some are excellent. Others fall far short. Some states have strict standards for charters. Others do not.

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS, President, NAACP: The issue for us is just simply making sure everyone operates by the same rules.

LISA STARK: The NAACP is calling for a moratorium on new charter schools, concerned about a host of issues, including charters that seem to cherry-pick students or have high suspension rates for children of color. The group wants reforms.

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: Make sure kids aren’t being suspended or expelled unfairly. Make sure you have standards of accountability and transparency, and let’s make sure that we don’t cream the best students, to the disservice of all the students.

LISA STARK: NAACP President Cornell William Brooks insists the group is not anti-charter, but he stresses accountability for these schools, which receive public education dollars, but are often run by private organizations and boards.

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: If we think that setting up a system without standards, like an educational wild, wild West, is going to save public education — by public education, I mean education for all children — we are sadly mistaken.

LISA STARK: Do you think there’s a schism, a break in the black community over this?

SARAH CARPENTER, Memphis Lift: I know it is.

LISA STARK: Sarah Carpenter believes in charter schools and worries that the NAACP is out of touch.

SARAH CARPENTER: Most of these people live in suburban areas. They look like me, but they are not connected to me.

LISA STARK: Carpenter lives in North Memphis, an area of high poverty, with both traditional and charter schools. She sent her oldest granddaughter to a charter more than a decade ago, inspired by the school’s focus on college.

SARAH CARPENTER: It changed my life, because they made our kids believe that they could do this. And growing up in this neighborhood, my mom didn’t talk about college.

LISA STARK: Carpenter’s granddaughter did go on to college, and Carpenter now runs Memphis lift, an education advocacy group for parents funded partly by groups that support charters.

She led a noisy protest at the NAACP board meeting in Cincinnati this fall, as the board ratified the charter moratorium resolution.

SARAH CARPENTER: We were screaming to the top of our voice: You’re not speaking for us.

KEITH WILLIAMS, Memphis-Shelby County Education Association: I don’t think they have the full understanding and exposure of what a proper, adequate education is for their children.

LISA STARK: Keith Williams is the executive director of Tennessee’s largest local teachers union, and he believes parents are often hoodwinked by charters.

But it sounds to me like you’re saying parents shouldn’t have a choice, aren’t smart enough to know where their kid should go to school.

KEITH WILLIAMS: I’m saying that some parents are not capable of determining venues that will be the most advantageous for their children. And that’s a fact.

LISA STARK: Teachers unions have long opposed charters, which in most cases can hire and fire teachers at will, and Williams believes charters have harmed public education as a whole.

KEITH WILLIAMS: If we didn’t have the competitive, economic interests of these self-serving entrepreneurs in charters, public schools would be in a better condition, they would be more academically sound, certainly more financially sound.

LISA STARK: But for parents such as Kimberly McNeal, there is no debate. She even moved just so she could easily get her daughters, Cassidy and Kai, to a nearby charter school, Vision Prep.

KIMBERLY MCNEAL, Charter School Parent: Me coming from a Memphis city school, I wanted something different, something more challenging for my children.

LISA STARK: It’s important for you to have a choice?

KIMBERLY MCNEAL: It is. It’s important for anybody to have a choice, whether it’s public, private or charter. Everybody should have a choice in where they feel like their children would do better and succeed at.

LISA STARK: At Vision Prep, which is well-regarded, you will find the hallmark of many charters: Students are called scholars, and college is emphasized, from pennants to classroom cheers.

And like many charters, this is a no-excuses school, stressing high standards in academics and behavior, practices that don’t always sit well with charter opponents, but appeal to many parents.

KIMBERLY MCNEAL: I think it’s good because it’s teaching children focus. It’s teaching them to be on one accord at school. They’re trying to be uniform. They’re trying to be more organized and put together, which is a good thing, because it not only teaches them here; it teaches them how to be like that at home.

LISA STARK: The battle over charters is only likely to heat up. President-elect Trump is a big supporter of school choice. But many argue this is the wrong debate, that what’s critical is finding schools that work, no matter how they’re set up.

SARAH CARPENTER: I feel so sad, because we shouldn’t have to fight for our kids to get a quality education. Why do we have to keep fighting as a race of people, black people? And what’s wrong with us wanting what’s best for our kids? Just because we are black and poor do not mean that we don’t want what’s best for our kids.

LISA STARK: So, when African-American parents and students find what they hope is the best school, it’s no wonder they’re celebrating.

In Memphis, I’m Lisa Stark of Education Week for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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