league-pic.jpgA heated controversy over the role of charter schools erupted during two meetings held the past week in Miami-Dade and Broward counties as part of the “We Care” campaign launched by the Florida Consortium of Urban Leagues.

In Palm Beach County, the new Common Core Standards took center stage, as residents in the state ponder ways to better gain access to high-quality education.

At the contentious Miami meeting attended by about 100 people Aug. 27 at the Greater Miami Urban League, it soon became evident that the eight-city series of town hall type meetings aim to promote charter schools and school choice as a path to a better quality of education.

 T. Willard Fair, who is about to celebrate his 50th anniversary as president/CEO of the Miami league, opened the meeting with an outline for all the sessions. 

“The recipe for survival happens to be education,” said Fair, noting that this is the first time that all eight Urban Leagues in the state have coordinated their efforts in such a manner.

Isha Haley, executive director of Black Floridians C.A.R.E., one of the organizations sponsoring the meetings, said her group was focused on leadership in charter schools.  “We want to prepare black leaders for charter schools,” she said.

“Leadership starts in our community,” said Haley, adding that she has been building her organization for a year and a half but its origins date back more than 15 years. 

State records show Black Floridians C.A.R.E. is the amended name of Floridians for School Choice, of which Fair has been a board member since 2004.

Nationwide, the Urban League has been supportive of charter schools dating back to 2000, when the National Urban League expressed its support of a pro-charter school bill in Washington State.

Haley insisted at the meeting that “we’re not here to advocate for any particular option.” But Fedrick Ingram, president of United Teachers of Dade, observed that “we have a large private interest here.  On this stage there all types of charter school interests.”

Haley took her case to the Aug. 29 session of the Broward County Urban League held in Fort Lauderdale and attended by about 75 people. She restated her nonprofit’s goal of “creating talent pipeline” for black leaders of charter schools.   At this second meeting, Haley said plans were under way for a proposed T. Willard Fair Fellowship which would identify 15 fellows to learn the business of and be groomed for opening and operating black-owned charter schools. More details will be forthcoming leading up to the expected launch of the program in January 2014.

Troy Bell of Students First said only 3 percent of the 5,000 charter schools in the country are owned and/or operated by blacks. Yet, 60 percent of the students attending those schools are black, Bell said.

Glen Gilzean of Step Up for Students, yet another sponsor of the “We Care” campaign, said his group provides scholarships to private schools, “for those families that want a religious education.”

Antonio White, a teacher and member of the UTD present at the Miami meeting, was not happy with what he was hearing.  “I don’t want my public dollars to go to private companies,” White said.

At the Fort Lauderdale meeting, Shirley Baker asked Gilzean about the source of Step Up for Students’ funding.  “We raise the money through private donations” in exchange for tax credits, he replied. 

Gilzean touted a benefit of the private school option:  “Charters have to go through the school district. The state of Florida is really friendly to private schools.”  He added that there is “no oversight… you can open up your own school in 30 days.”

Ideology entered the discussions, as well. In his opening remarks in Fort Lauderdale, Bell mentioned “the founder of our organization” without being specific. When the name of StudentsFirst’s founder, Michelle Rhee, the controversial former school superintendent in Washington, D.C., was mentioned by White during the Miami meeting, Fair refused to allow any discussion on her, noting she was not present. However, books bearing Lee’s name and photograph were prominently displayed at a StudentsFirst information table at the Fort Lauderdale meeting.

Salon.com said in an article published in late 2012 that StudentsFirst supported 105 candidates for political office that year, more than 85 percent of them conservatives.  According to income tax returns filled by StudentsFirst in Pennsylvania in 2011, “the purpose of StudentsFirst … is to support political candidates who are running for statewide office … who support charter schools and voucher programs.”

But the performance of charter schools has been called into question. A study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) was cited by organizers on one side of the issue and supporters of public education on the opposite side. “Only 17 percent of charter schools do better than public schools,” said Catherine Kim Owens, a parent in attendance, citing the CREDO report.  Bell disagreed, saying that the study was only for the first three years that a charter school is open.

Former Broward School Superintendent Jim Notter, who abruptly retired in 2011 in the aftermath of a grand jury report of rampant corruption during his tenure, was present at the Fort Lauderdale meeting.  Notter, who is a member of the board of directors of the Urban League of Broward County, enthusiastically offered his support to Haley. “I’m available to you because you have a solution,” he said. Before the meeting adjourned, Notter indicated another benefit from school choice: “You don’t have to deal with teachers unions.”

At the Aug. 28 meeting of the Urban League of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, attended by around 120 people, Jones, a professor in the College of Education at the University of South Florida, painted a bleak picture of the status of black students.

“African-American children are consistently at the bottom,” Jones said. “For a number of years, we’ve been in lock-up mode, with prisons and jails. The United States leads the world in locking people up. This is a losing strategy.”

The chronically low performing schools across the state all have largely minority populations. According to Jones, in the 2008-09 school year, only 20 percent of black students were at grade level in reading.

“We are not willing to accept this data,” said Jim Browder, executive director for Region 5 of the Florida Department of Education. Browder said the new Common Core State Standards are being implemented to improve the situation. That issue also surfaced in Lauderdale.

In 2010,  Florida adopted the new standards in English,  Language Arts and Mathematics which will impact the way children are taught, how they learn and how they will be assessed.

Common Core, when fully implemented, is said to put all students on the same level. The standards are supposed to be fully implemented by the 2014-15 school year, replacing the highly controversial Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Few members of the West Palm Beach audience knew about Common Core. Patrick Franklin, president/CEO of the Urban League of Palm Beach County, described that as disconcerting.

“Our people don’t know about it. They’ve never heard of it and it’s going to change the pendulum of education of our students if we’re setting new standards and ways of learning … It’s going to change the way we teach and the way we learn. We need to address how we’re going to test, very quickly,” he said in a telephone interview following the forum.

“We need input from parents and others who are invested in our children’s education.”

He said the Urban League of Palm Beach County will hold more discussions on Common Core to make sure black parents become knowledgeable about it.

Browder said that Common Core was not set in stone. He promised to take the audience’s concerns to the Florida Department of Education and attempt to get more parental involvement.