Last spring, the Fortune School of Education, a charter management group that operates six schools in Sacramento and San Bernardino, christened its newest school the Alice Huffman College Prep Middle School, in honor of the longtime president of the California NAACP. Margaret Fortune, the charter group's CEO, says it is customary at Fortune, where 60 percent of students are black, to name schools after those she calls "living local African-American community icons."
Then in the summer, the California NAACP, led by the same Alice Huffman, introduced a resolution on the floor of the NAACP's national convention calling for a halt to the further expansion of charter schools, pending an in-depth review. The resolution carried, and Margaret Fortune, who is a card-carrying member of the NAACP, seems to have taken the vote personally.
"Imagine my surprise when I found out in August that my NAACP had gone national with a resolution calling for a moratorium of all charter schools," Fortune said Thursday during a presentation at a public hearing of the NAACP's Task Force on Quality Education in Los Angeles. "Alice and I proudly went together to the Sacramento County Board of Education and advocated that the board approve the location of Alice Huffman College Prep Middle School, which they did unanimously."
Huffman and others in the African-American community and beyond argue that the growth of charter schools is weakening the public school system. They point out that charter schools, which receive public funds but are under private management, are not held to the same standards as traditional public schools. The NAACP says that charters can strain district schools by siphoning away tax dollars from traditional public schools.
Huffman, the chairwoman of the NAACP task force, told L.A. Weekly in a phone interview: "We're looking at the whole situation of charter schools versus district schools, and how it's impacting the quality of education, whether or not there is equity in the system, transparency and accountability."
Last year, the California Charter Schools Association, the statewide advocacy group for charters, announced that more than 600,000 students in California were enrolled in public charters — more than 10 percent of public school students. LAUSD, the nation's second largest school district, has more charters than any district in the country, and the CCSA says it is poised for continued growth.
The NAACP task force on Thursday heard from the CEOs of four separate charter groups, officials from two labor unions that represent teachers in the L.A. area, two former school board officials, and current LAUSD school board member George McKenna. The testimony covered a host of issues, including that African-Americans are suspended at a higher rate in charter schools than their white counterparts.
"We're going to hear both sides about the quality of education for African-American children," Huffman said in her opening remarks. "And if we don't lose sight of that today, we'll come out of this hearing [with] everybody feeling better."
She was referring to both the presenters and to the audience, which consisted of about 100 people more or less split into two hostile camps inside the Ron Deaton Civic Auditorium at Los Angeles Police Headquarters. Like a popular sporting match held at a neutral site, the meeting saw the two sides alternately erupt in applause or voice disbelief during the presenters' remarks.
Fortune drew applause from the pro-charter crowd when she referred to the NAACP moratorium and its task force as "a distraction." Instead, the country's oldest nonpartisan civil rights organization, she said, "should have been opposing the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary with everything it had."
This week, by the narrowest of margins, the United States Senate confirmed DeVos as secretary of education. Because DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and Republican donor, is a major proponent of charter schools, her controversial appointment has caused something of a public relations problem for charter advocates in the deep-blue state of California.
Cecily Myart-Cruz, vice president of United Teachers of L.A., received a standing ovation from supporters when she criticized the CCSA for initially congratulating DeVos in a public message in November. The public message, from CEO Jed Wallace, described DeVos as "a longtime supporter of charter schools" and recognized her for having "long demonstrated a commitment to providing families with improved public school options."
"Never mind that Betsy DeVos dismisses the needs of low-income students, of disabled students, and is supremely unqualified," Myart-Cruz said. "All CCSA saw was the thrilling opportunity to have a billionaire ally pushing their growth agenda at the national level.”
The CCSA turned more critical of DeVos' nomination in December, due in part to her support for school vouchers. According to a statement the CCSA sent to state legislators, the vouchers "would be at odds with the needs of California's public school system."
Before the start of Thursday's hearing, the CCSA rallied outside the building. The crowd of 50 was made up of charter students, parents, teachers, alumni and executives. Laura McGowan-Robinson, a senior vice president at CCSA, told L.A. Weekly in a phone interview that the purpose of the rally was to force the task force to hear their voices "regardless of what happened on the inside."
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Fortune, addressing the rally of charter supporters, said: "The NAACP needs to take their hands off our charter schools." A woman entering the building to attend the hearing turned and scoffed at one of the protesters' signs and asked, "Charter schools work for who?"
This was the fourth hearing that task force members have conducted around the country; the previous were in New Haven, Connecticut; Memphis; and Orlando. The NAACP will hold additional task force hearings in Detroit ,New Orleans and New York City before sending its report to the board in May.
Huffman says the two most consistent issues to arise so far are the lack of consistency in charter school regulation from state to state (which she calls "disturbing") and the protests of charter school advocates.
"Charter school people have been really anxious about these hearings," she says.