NAACP Hearing Reveals Unsurprising Rift Over Charter Schools

Photo credit: Josh Stewart / Citizen Ed

Photo credit: Josh Stewart / Citizen Ed

The battle of wills between charter school advocates and opponents continued last Thursday, February 9th, at the NAACP’s special hearing on charter schools in Los Angeles.

The hearing, held at the Deaton Civic Auditorium at LAPD Headquarters, convened some of the city’s most seasoned veterans and dedicated professionals in the education field.

The first part of the hearing was structured to allow ten guest speakers from different sides of the charter school debate to address NAACP’s Task Force on Quality Education. After each oral presentation, the Task Force was given the chance to ask speakers more probing questions.

The 11-member Task Force included Alice Huffman (Chair), Michael Curry, Hazel Dukes, Scot Esdaile, James Gallman, John Jackson, Daquan Love, Dora Nweze, Peter Rose, Gloria Sweet-Love, Derrick Johnson, and Robin Williams.

With few exceptions, the speakers fell into two opposing camps: those who focused on the promise of charter schools and those who, instead, fixated on its problems.

Among those who spoke favorably of charter schools were: Margaret Fortune, CEO of Fortune Schools; Chris Ungar, Ex-President, California Charter School Association (CCSA); Christina De Jesus, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California

Jonathan Williams, CEO of Accelerated Schools; and Gene Fisher Founder of Watts Learning Center.

One of the most compelling stories of charter school success came from NAACP member, Margarete Fortune, who leads a chain of charter schools in Sacramento and San Bernardino that are top-ranked in California on measures of academic performance.

There is a reason why black parents are choosing to send their kids to Fortune schools. The traditional school districts in our community woefully under-serve black students.                

Presenters on the opposing side, who dwelled largely on the flaws of charter schools, were fewer in number, but just as opinionated. They included Jose Acala of California Teachers Association; Cecily Myart-Cruz, VP of United Teachers Los Angeles; and Dr. Julian Heilig-Vasquez, Professor at Sacramento State.

The most passionate speech from the opposition came from Cecily Myart-Cruz, a head of United Teachers Los Angeles. With a booming voice and deep conviction, she held no bars in exposing the faults she saw with charter schools. “CCSA and charter operators want to gloss over the issues that the NAACP moratorium highlights: transparency, accountability, and the impacts on the public school system from unregulated charter growth.”

Moderate voices such as George McKenna were hard to find. In his speech, he neither praised nor vilified charter schools. A self-proclaimed pragmatist with over 50 years of experience in education, his chief concern was bridging the rift between the two sides. He insisted that “the charter and public schools today, have to work together, whether we like it or not.” For him, it seemed non-negotiable. He added, “these children are too precious to be ignored.”

The NAACP Task Force did little to unify the polarized groups. The national leaders opted, instead, to maintain a neutral stance during the session. Rosyln Brock, NAACP Board Chair, placed the NAACP in a position to volley between sides. “If your charter school is working well, it's accountable, has transparency… continue to do what you're doing,” Brock said. But then added, “However, if your charter school is throwing out Jamal and Jimmy and Jereeka. And you’re letting Alice and Susan stay in school … we're here for those who are left in our community.”

To be fair, fostering collaboration between the brain trust that had gathered in Deaton Auditorium last week was not the NAACP’s stated purpose.

Brock made it clear that “We [the Board] are here to listen and to learn.” She continued, “we would like a moratorium, a pause, for us to have a conversation and a dialogue about the opportunity to educate our children.”

Despite hours of discussion, the fact that few solutions were explored at this meeting calls into question whether these type of dialogue-heavy hearings are a worthwhile use of NAACP’s time and resources.

Dialogue is fine. But action is better. And the verdict is still out on whether the National Task Force can translate the knowledge gained from these hearings into meaningful policy action.

In the weeks ahead, the NAACP’s national listening tour will continue to host a series of hearings in other cities across the U.S. including stops in Detroit, New Orleans and New York.