NewsThe 74 Interview

74 Interview: Indiana Educator Earl Phalen on Innovating Classrooms for Low-Income Students of Color — and the NAACP’s ‘Phony’ Charter War

By Emmeline Zhao | October 8, 2017

(Photo credit: Markus Zeffler)

Earl Phalen is the incarnation of upending the status quo.

In 1968, Phalen was adopted as an infant by George and Veronica Phalen into their Norwood, Massachusetts, home. Growing up in the blue-collar suburb of Boston, Phalen was the youngest of his seven siblings. He was also the only black member of his family of second-generation Irish immigrants. His parents had been active in the civil rights movement and continued to instill in Phalen a sense of self, heritage, and culture as a black male in America.

Phalen attended local schools, did well academically, and excelled in athletics. He later earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and graduated from Harvard Law alongside a young Barack and Michelle Obama.

For a while, Phalen thought he was going to enter politics. But a year spent volunteering at a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., made him realize that he wanted to be the one on the ground making the difference in the lives of young people, not behind a podium talking about it. While at Harvard, Phalen founded a nonprofit tutoring and mentoring program with a fellow classmate. Through volunteering at a local community center, he saw that 15-year-olds, supposedly the best in their classes, couldn’t even read at a sixth-grade level. Building Educated Leaders for Life grew from serving fewer than two dozen children in a low-income community of Boston to more than 17,000 students across four states. In 1997, President Bill Clinton recognized Phalen with a President’s Volunteer Service Award for his work.

In 2009, Phalen founded Summer Advantage USA, whose success and national recognition led the Indiana Charter School Board in 2012 to grant Phalen approval to open 10 George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academies.

With seven schools in the state of Indiana and three in Detroit, Phalen Leadership Academies now serves a student population that is 97 percent black and Latino and 99 percent low-income. Phalen sat down with The 74 at one of the academies in Indianapolis in August to discuss the landscape of educating the neediest students in America today.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: You were the product of public schools. What made you believe in the charter model?

Phalen: I think my belief is really, first and foremost, that every child deserves a good public education — whether that’s public traditional or public charter. Seeing the transformation that getting access to a good public education can have, versus the absolute unfairness that exists every single day in almost every low-income community, which is, if you go to the public school that is available for you in your community, more than likely you have a less than 10 percent chance that you’re going to make your way to college. And it’s not the only path, but college-to-career still is one of the best ways to change your living situation. So I firmly was brought up with the belief that education is the way that you improve your life.

I’ve been frustrated for 20 years watching children be forced, based on ZIP code, based on parents’ income, based on the parents’ parents’ ZIP code and income, not be able to have access to the quality of education that they deserved en masse. And charters, especially high-quality charters, have certainly changed that in a positive direction. They’re not the panacea, but they’ve certainly changed that in a positive direction.

In July, the NAACP doubled down on its stance against charter schools at its convention. For the approximately 1 million black students in charter schools across the country, the option is seen as a lifeline in communities where families find traditional district schools failing their children. How does this add up, and what is your take on the NAACP’s latest push?

It’s even hard for me to listen to the message, because of the organization that’s been saying it. [W.E.B.] Du Bois is one of my favorite black heroes, and the founder of the NAACP, and to have this organization that has not been relevant for 30 years making comments and statements about communities in which they haven’t stepped in, in many cases, 30 years, is offensive.

There are good charters and there are bad charters, but what a weak statement from such a historically great organization. If you’re going to call out charters on quality, and remain silent on public education as the pathway forward for our kids, then I think you’re a phony organization. I think you’re disingenuous, and I think you should go back to what you’ve been doing for the last 30 years, which is, I don’t know, I think it’s debutante balls.

If you ask any person in the heart of the black community, “What does the NAACP stand for? What does it do?” they would pause, scratch their head, and say, “I think they have the image awards.” That’s all the NAACP has been doing in most of its chapters.

I think it’s weakhearted to say charters should be closed when millions of children and families — black children and families they purport to represent — are actually now benefiting. They now have a pathway that if they make good choices, they will actually get the type of education that can transform their children and their futures.

I think it’s absolutely cowardice that they came out with that statement and said nothing about distinguishing good charters from bad charters, which if they had said that, I would have been right next to them, saying, “Yeah, we need to distinguish good charters and bad charters.” And I would’ve still said, “Aren’t you going to say something about the absolutely wretched public education that exists in most of the communities where most of the children and families who you supposedly are speaking for live?”

In issuing its report, the NAACP said its task force traveled to seven cities before making its recommendation to stop charter school growth until certain conditions are met. (The task force was created after the NAACP ratified in October 2016 a resolution issuing a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools.) What is it, then, that they were missing in those communities?

The NAACP is a national organization with chapters in every major city and every low-income city in the United States of America. This was not a task force. This was, I believe — and I don’t know their motivations, I can’t even begin to guess — but given there was an election coming up, and given the fact that some organizations’ policies are largely driven by who their donors are, it made me very concerned about the timing and the message and saying that they had a task force go to seven cities.

The NAACP is supposed to be an incredibly relevant organization in 500 cities across the United States. So did they survey their base, does their base even know what’s happening in our communities? I’ve been from Boston to New York to Baltimore to Detroit to Chicago to Indianapolis to Gary [Indiana], and I haven’t seen the NAACP as a relevant force in any one of those communities.

So was it an error of process in their research?

I don’t think it was a process piece. I think there was a predetermined message that was supposed to help attract a crowd of donors, or maybe a specific donor, or maybe a political party. I don’t believe there was any research done in a serious way that could’ve given the outcome that “all charters should be stopped because they’re bad, and we should continue pushing our kids into public education.”

There are tons of great charters that are serving tens of thousands of children. They must not have stopped at any of those schools, or they must not have talked with any of their representatives, or their representatives are so disconnected to what’s really happening in their communities that they shouldn’t call themselves representatives anymore. Which is my stance on the NAACP — they are not representative of the black community, they haven’t been relevant as leaders in the black community for well over 30 years, and I might even say 40 or 50. So I think that their motivations were either political or to buffer their own coffers.

I put the Urban League in the same bucket. I think unfortunately — part of that is a little bit racist — these were the organizations in the ’60s and ’70s that were beacons. They were beacons both in terms of pushing the mainstream establishment, but also beacons for us, providing leadership, changing laws, fighting segregation. Like Thurgood Marshall, these were the great leaders, and I think folks who are now risen haven’t taken the time, and it’s not as easy to find leadership in the black community as it was when you had the old NAACP, when you had leaders like Malcolm X, [Ralph] Abernathy, Dr. [Martin Luther] King, Adam Clayton Powell, when you had a black church that people would drive to.

It’s now harder to find our leaders, so I think folks are either just being lazy or they’re kind of saying, “Well, that was the group that was very important when I was coming up and when things were really serious, so that must still be the group 50 years later.” They’re not. And I don’t know anybody who’s in the heart of the black community who thinks those organizations are organizations we would call our leaders.

So who is the modern-day NAACP or Urban League that the black community can look to for leadership?

I think leadership is much more diverse and diffuse at this point. There are not a ton of national leaders. There are a lot of national voices. There are a lot of national black quote-unquote leaders who show up when reporters need to talk to somebody black to get expertise on an issue, and some of their articulation of our struggle and what we’re going through is accurate. Some of it is not.

I think the leadership right now is much more dispersed, and I think that there are a lot of local leaders who are phenomenal, who people look up to in every city. And there are dozens of them. Many of them are very young. Some of them are not quite as young. I think that’s the leadership that exists right now. And again, it’s harder to find who are the leaders in Indianapolis that parents really respect, who parents talk to.

And I could name a handful of leaders here in Indianapolis, in Gary, but it’s not that same, “Oh, call Reverend Al Sharpton, he has the hand on the pulse.” He’s done an enormous amount, so I’m not disparaging all the great work he’s done, but it’s not that same day where it was Jesse Jackson, it was Reverend Al Sharpton, it was Bill Cosby. There was a two-decade period that those three individuals were the most prominent and most prevalent voices when somebody needed to find out what is going on in the black community. That day has changed.

The NAACP’s report calls for a more rigorous authorizing and renewal process for charter schools, as well as eliminating for-profit charter schools, among other recommendations. Are they fair conclusions?

I think some are partially fair and some are out of touch, which is how I describe the institution and the study. I think the notion that for-profit — and I run a nonprofit — makes you a bad organization is ludicrous.

I think that having tighter financial accountability is good. But it’s tighter financial accountability to charters in most communities that are already getting 20 to 30 percent less public funds than the schools right down the street. So it’s with that caveat.

I think the notion of high accountability with all schools is great. If a school is not working and demonstrating the level of growth in student improvement, I think those schools should be shut down. Why not say, “We want a moratorium on bad schools, and we’re against bad schools, and we want to up state legislator accountability around what happens to underperforming public schools, whether they’re traditional, district, or whether they’re charter, and we want to find a way to get more funds into good schools, whether they’re parochial, traditional district, or charter”?

If they said that, I would be probably second in line behind their quote-unquote leadership, touting this as something. But to choose the small sliver of where our 8 million kids are going, and then to know that within those 8 million children of color or black children, many of them are getting the only educational choice that they have, the only good one, through charters, I don’t know what the motivation could’ve been.

And the NAACP does have, despite what I’ve said, a lot of smart people, so there had to have been a very intelligent motivation to say, “We’re going to ignore where 95 percent of our kids go” — and by the way, 95 percent of our kids in low-income communities are in atrocious schools. And that’s why most NAACP members don’t live in the community. They live in the suburbs, don’t step into the community, and their kids go to schools in the suburbs, so I struggle with the recommendations because I know there has to be some bias that smart people would say, “I’m going to take away millions of high-quality seats that have existed for the first time in 20 years, from kids, low-income black children and families.”

So some of the recommendations of shutting down low-performing charters, I’m on it. If the school is bad, we’ve gotta shut it down. Making sure that dollars are going towards children, I’m with that. But I’ll also say that we’re getting 30 percent less to begin with.

On the designation of for-profit versus nonprofit, I’d just keep the designation on, “Is this school delivering the type of outcomes that they should for kids?” And then I’d encourage the NAACP to show some real courage and actually start to talk about where most of our black, Latino, and poor white children attend, and what are we going to do to put pressure on that system to respond.

The one thing I will say is, having been in this sector and having done more turnarounds and seeing some of the agreements that community members got into with for-profits — now I’m making a statement that does agree with the NAACP — those contracts, those agreements are disgusting. There are well-meaning community members who say, “I can run a school, I can run a school,” they organize themselves, they say, “Oh, but I need someone to help with the facility, and we need someone to help manage.”

Then the company will say, “Pay us 20 percent of your per-pupil for the facility that you’re renting — you’re not even going to own it. And then give us 15 percent to do management, back office, finance, HR things, so you can focus on the educational program.” On a long-term 15-year lease, 20 percent fee, and you don’t own anything at the end of it is criminal.

So I will give them credit on that point, that if you take 35 percent out of the per-pupil funding, it’s going to be very hard to deliver results. That part of NAACP’s resolution piece doesn’t make me say, don’t do for-profits; it makes me say, if you’re starting a charter school and you’re ambitious enough to believe you can create a great education program for children, then do your homework. There is more than enough research on what a good agreement should look like, what good financial metrics should look like.

On the notion that the traditional district is a solution, I have 100 years of evidence that demonstrates that sending our kids back to traditional low-income public school is an absolute near-death sentence for that child’s future. That, I know, and the NAACP knows, and that’s why I say, shame on them for taking some political move or some donations that made them say something that is patently untrue. Or, shame on them for being so ignorant to have no connection to the community to think that their recommendations are actually going to help, not hurt, our children and families.

What’s it going to take to overshadow that message?

First and foremost, I don’t think the NAACP has that much juice. I’m not seeing charters decline, I’m not seeing anybody other than the original splash talk about there should be a moratorium except for the same people who oppose charters to begin with, and so I’m not seeing that they have that much juice to make an impact.

I think what we should do, those who are really focused on the work, focused on the children, and focused on change, is continue to drive harder than ever to make sure that every school that we operate, whether nonprofit like mine or for-profit like some others, actually delivers extraordinary results to children.

I think the best thing we can do at this time is, I think legislators should shut down bad charters, and they should also put extreme pressure on bad public schools to be transitioned — like Innovation Schools in Indianapolis — be transitioned to a different operator who can give the kids a chance and, if you’re on the ground, deliver for children.

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