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 leading plaintiff in the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, wanted his daughter Linda to have a choice about her public school. In 1951, he couldn’t understand why his daughter had to walk six blocks to the bus stop to get to her segregated school, when a perfectly good school was seven blocks away.
The NAACP is convening in Orlando Friday night as part of a national tour to discuss the state of public education and how charter public schools are educating students of color. We need to look no further than the legacy of President Obama, who, as a candidate in 2008, promised to double the Federal Charter School Grant Program. He delivered on that promise. The Race to the Top grant program, the hallmark of Obama’s education reform agenda, included charter school development. “States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top fund,” said Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, in 2009.
These policies directly contributed to our nation’s record high school graduation rate of 83 percent, a trend that has shown improvement across all racial and ethnic groups. Today, the graduation rate for African Americans is 75 percent, still lower than our white counterparts, but an increase that shows our community rapidly closing that achievement gap. In fact, we’ve exceeded the national rate of improvement by making yearly gains of 1.3 percent since 2011.
This fall at its 107th Annual Convention, the NAACP cracked open a huge division among the civil rights and education communities when it decided to add a demand for a moratorium on new charter schools as part of its national platform. The moratorium passed over the objections of hundreds of civil rights leaders, including Dr. Howard Fuller, founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and Cheryl Brown Henderson, the daughter of Oliver, who fought for school equality in the courts. Thousands of parents petitioned the NAACP not to take away their ability to choose the best public school option for their child. And a school bus filled with concerned parents and grandparents drove from Memphis, Tenn., to the NAACP’s board meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, to ask the NAACP in person to reconsider the moratorium.
Ultimately the moratorium was adopted in a private meeting, as the NAACP stated in part that it is “calling for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter schools at least until such time as: Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.” As the NAACP now brings its charter listening tour to Florida, its leaders should know: Our state already operates according to these rules. Florida charter schools operate under the same Sunshine Laws of Open Government that the City of Orlando and Orange County operate under. Florida charter schools have higher accountability standards than neighborhood public schools because if they receive two consecutive “F” grades, they must close their doors.
Imagine if traditional schools had to operate under this scrutiny and pressure. Charter schools have been serving students in the Sunshine State for 20 years with these strict rules in pace. The Florida Department of Education has given 46 percent of the state’s charters an “A” grade, compared with only 34 percent of district public schools. And African-American schoolers attending our charter schools outperformed their district peers in math and reading proficiency tests by 11 percent.
Our hope is that today’s NAACP hearing in Orlando allows for a real discussion of these accountability rules, school standards and student test scores. But constructive dialogue about Florida’s charter schools can’t take place when charter school leaders aren’t invited to the table. Instead, tonight’s speakers list is a one-sided who’s-who of high-profile charter school critics, from the head of the country’s largest teachers union, who sensationally claims that charter schools are killing public education, to the NAACP’s chief lobbyist, who has repeatedly held up debunked claims about charter schools that conveniently support his arguments.
The fact is, African-American children in America’s charter schools learn the equivalent of 36 more days of reading and 26 more days of math than African-American students in district schools. For African-American students living in low-income households, the benefits of a charter school are even more dramatic. These students gain 44 extra days of reading skills and a stunning 59 extra days of math knowledge compared with similar children in district schools.
Let me be clear: Charter schools are far from perfect, and every kid deserves a great school. But Florida parents deserve a real conversation about how charters must improve, as well as what they’re doing successfully today. Any such conversation must be open to all those folks who have a stake in charter schools — including parents, students and those who work with charter schools every day. We have a valuable perspective to share because we have firsthand experience with the accomplishments of charters when it comes to educating our kids, especially our kids of color. 
It’s imperative that the NAACP hear from real Floridians with real daily experience in charter schools. I will be attending today’s meeting. I respect the members of the NAACP and all they have done to champion civil rights, and I’m hopeful that I can stand with them on education.
But the education of Florida’s children is too important for me to stay at home.

Christopher Norwood is the founder and president of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools and the chairman of the City of Miami Education Advisory Board.

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