The first annual, three-day Independent Charter School Symposium offered a variety of guest speakers, panels and discussions on topics like race and class, collaboration with district schools, and labor unions.
Amy Shore, a communications representative for the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), which co-hosted the symposium, said the conference is meant to advance the cause of community-based charter schools.
“They are usually created and developed by local community leaders, teachers, principals from district schools,” she said. “They’re tied deeply to those spaces.”
But part of the purpose was also to redefine a narrative about charter schools that created divisions with traditional district schools. Shore mentioned that CEI “loves our district schools” and collaborate with them often, all toward the goal of improving public education for all students.
“This is what this is about, trying to find ways to stop thinking about the divisions,” she said. “Stop advancing the narrative that charter schools are not public schools, which is not true, or that they’re trying to suck money out. Those are not real stories.”
Shore noted that 55 percent of all charter schools nationwide are independent, not tied to a larger network like the Success Academy Charter Schools, which has engendered controversies. She called a lot of the assumptions or narratives about charter schools “myths,” and that most people at the conference already know they are myths.
“We have to stop getting attracted in the public by the controversies,” Shore said. “We have to start listening to the good news.”
Michael Kohlhagen, CEO of the Center for Educational Innovation, said the charter schools are not about competition, but rather a vision of “quality education for every student.”
“The essence of our work is sharing best practices across the independent charters and traditional public schools,” he said. “We hope they’ll learn from each other and create a network of these independent leaders who can support each other and really figure out how to meet the needs of every student.
“These schools are filling specific needs and gaps that are really needed in every single community,” Kohlhagen added.
One of the featured panels at the symposium focused on race, class and chartering. Last year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter school expansions and for the strengthening of oversight over charter school governance and practice.
Some panelists defended the moratorium and expanded on why it was adopted, while others spoke against the resolution.
L. Joy Williams, a political strategist and president of the Brooklyn NAACP, said the moratorium states the issues the NAACP was concerned about, such as for-profit organizations working with some charter schools and the lack of accountability and transparency.
“We do not believe there should be for-profit entities governing schools at all,” Williams said. “It’s hard for me to believe your intent is to educate when you have to make money and answer to shareholders.”
She added that the conversation of charter schools against district schools is “a distraction.” She said education leaders should instead focus on how to better fund traditional public schools in the first place.
“I don't choose to fight in that ring,” Williams said. “That's been defined by others who don’t have the intention of what’s best.”
Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State Sacramento, said research shows that charter schools have had a negative impact in northeast schools “across the board.”
“The challenge is we know there are bad actors, and the numbers will continue to be small until you hold those actors to accountability standards,” he said, urging charter schools to make more data available.
Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, said what drives his beliefs is supporting “whatever works for children.”
He cited a study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) that concluded that charter schools generally outperform district schools and provide more days in math and reading.
“This is what parents and families know,” he said. “Our children do not have time for these polarized conversations.”
Reverend Ray Rivera, who has founded four charter schools since 2001, said he thinks about charter schools as a means to have community control over education. That means the community can have a voice in selecting teachers, principals and board members.
“I was tired of our children continuously failing,” he said. “Decisions should be made as close as possible to where the children are.”
The charter schools he founded now outperform the district schools academically, Rivera said. When asked if charter schools serve the needs of children of color, his answer was an “unequivocal yes.”
The panelists also discussed the issue of school segregation and if they prioritized integration to ensure greater diversity in schools. According to moderator Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, research suggests charter schools are even more segregated than public schools.
Rivera said his charter schools cared about hiring “homegrown, indigenous” teachers and students more than the diversity of the school. While he doesn’t deny that diversity improves education, he said he wasn’t focused on it.
“I’m more for organic growth than busing at any costs,” he said. “I don’t think integration is a foundational pillar to excellence. I think kids can be in a homogenous setting.”
Jeffries said segregation exists because “white people don’t want to live in black and brown communities.”
“The problem is white supremacy, not charter schools, let's deal with those issues,” he said. “If these people don’t want our kids, we’ve got to educate our babies where they are. White kids can learn without us, so we can too.”
He acknowledged that diversity helps students because it helps break down stereotypes. And while he would “love to be in an integrated environment,” he said the reality is that segregation exists in neighborhoods across the country.
“We have to make our own schools,” he said. “Black kids are vulnerable, and we don’t have a lot.
“We need a moratorium on these traditional public schools that have been failing our kids for years,” Jeffries added. “Where’s the moratorium on that?”
Williams agreed that it’s “insulting to us that people of color can’t learn without white people” around.
“Always telling people you have to send your children to all white schools, that's very damaging,” she said. “It perpetuates that I have to leave my community.”
The root issue, she said, is how to create an equitable public education system, one that is properly funded.
“We are stripping away resources from public schools to say charter schools are the only method that exists to educate children,” Williams said. “If we're going to put money into the system, the system needs to be equitable.”