Open Letter: What the NAACP Should Know About Florida’s Charter Schools Ahead of Tonight’s Orlando Hearing
Oliver Brown, a welder, an assistant church pastor, and the primary plaintiff in the groundbreaking civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, desired for his daughter Linda to have the opportunity to choose her public school. In 1951, he couldn’t comprehend why his daughter had to walk six blocks to the bus stop in order to attend her racially segregated school, when there was a perfectly good school just seven blocks away.
The NAACP is coming together in Orlando on Friday night as part of a nationwide tour to discuss the condition of public education and the effect of charter public schools on students of color. We don’t need to search far to see the impact of President Obama’s legacy in this matter. As a candidate in 2008, he made a promise to double the Federal Charter School Grant Program, and he followed through on that commitment. The Race to the Top grant program, which was the cornerstone of Obama’s education reform agenda, included the development of charter schools. In 2009, Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, stated, "States that do not have public charter laws or impose artificial limits on charter school growth will put their Race to the Top fund applications at risk."
These policies have directly contributed to our nation achieving a record high graduation rate of 83 percent, with improvement across all racial and ethnic groups. Presently, the graduation rate for African Americans stands at 75 percent, which is still lower than our white counterparts, but it signifies our community making significant strides in closing the achievement gap. In fact, since 2011, we have surpassed the national rate of improvement by consistently achieving yearly gains of 1.3 percent.
During the NAACP’s 107th Annual Convention this fall, a significant division emerged within the civil rights and education communities when the organization decided to call for a moratorium on new charter schools as part of its national agenda. The moratorium was passed, despite strong objections from numerous civil rights leaders, including Dr. Howard Fuller, the founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and Cheryl Brown Henderson, the daughter of Oliver Brown, who fought for educational equality in the courts. Thousands of parents petitioned the NAACP to reconsider the moratorium and not take away their ability to choose the best public school option for their child. In a show of protest, a school bus filled with concerned parents and grandparents traveled from Memphis, Tennessee, to the NAACP’s board meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, to personally request the NAACP to reconsider the moratorium.
Eventually, the moratorium was adopted in a private meeting, with the NAACP stating that it is "calling for a pause in the expansion of charter schools until they adhere to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools." However, the NAACP should be aware that our state, Florida, already operates under these regulations. Charter schools in Florida are subject to the same Sunshine Laws of Open Government as the City of Orlando and Orange County. In addition, Florida’s charter schools are held to higher levels of accountability compared to neighborhood public schools. If a charter school receives two consecutive "F" grades, it is required to shut down.
Imagine if traditional schools were subjected to this level of scrutiny and pressure. Charter schools in the Sunshine State have been providing education to students for 20 years with these strict regulations in place. According to the Florida Department of Education, 46 percent of the state’s charters have received an "A" grade, as opposed to only 34 percent of district public schools. Furthermore, African-American students attending charter schools in Florida have outperformed their district peers by 11 percent in math and reading proficiency tests.
We hope that the NAACP hearing taking place in Orlando today will allow for a genuine discussion regarding accountability rules, school standards, and student test scores. However, it is difficult to engage in constructive dialogue about Florida’s charter schools when charter school leaders are excluded from the conversation. Unfortunately, tonight’s speakers list predominantly consists of high-profile critics of charter schools, including the head of the largest teachers union in the country, who sensationally claims that charter schools are detrimental to public education, and the NAACP’s main lobbyist, who continually promotes discredited claims about charter schools to support their own arguments.
The fact remains that African-American children in America’s charter schools acquire the equivalent of 36 additional days of reading skills and 26 additional days of math knowledge compared to African-American students in district schools. Moreover, for African-American students from low-income households, the benefits of attending a charter school are even more remarkable. These students gain an additional 44 days of reading skills and an impressive 59 days of math knowledge compared to similar children in district schools.
It is vital that the NAACP receives input from authentic Florida residents who have firsthand experience with charter schools in their daily lives. I will be present at today’s meeting because I hold great respect for the NAACP members and their commendable efforts in fighting for civil rights. Moreover, I am optimistic that I can align myself with them on matters of education.
However, the education of Florida’s children carries such immense significance that I cannot remain idle and choose to stay home.
Christopher Norwood, the creator and leader of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools, as well as the chairperson of the City of Miami Education Advisory Board.