What’s best for black students?

Charter industry report presents charter schools as solution to black education gap

One of the Fortune schools in Sacramento.

One of the Fortune schools in Sacramento.

Photo by Kris hooks

Black kids deserve great schools, too.

The statement was written on the shirts of hundreds of mostly black charter school students standing in front of the state Capitol during a Feb. 5 rally in which education leaders and state lawmakers unveiled the results of a statewide study of majority-black schools' efforts to close the education gap.

But the study—funded and created by the charter school lobby and presenting charter schools as the solution to the black achievement gap—deserves more scrutiny than it ended up getting, cautioned a Sacramento State University education professor who reviewed the report for SN&R.

“While the problem is real, the logic, methods, and proposed solutions are problematic,” Frank Adamson, an assistant professor at Sac State's College of Education, explained in an email.

Fortune Schools CEO Margaret Fortune and the National Action Network coauthored the study, which shows that one in three black students in California are proficient in English and only one in five are proficient in math—lower than all other subgroups.

The report also acts as an unsubtle advertisement for charter schools that serve mostly black and Latino students, including Fortune's.

“When one group of students like African-American students are the lowest performing subgroup in the state—other than students with special needs—we should all be upset about it,” Fortune said at the rally. “We all should be outraged.”

The question is what to do about it?

A small sample size

There aren't many majority-black enrolled schools in California, which makes sense in a state where African-American students comprise only 5.4% of enrollment.

According to the report, about 70% of California's 86 majority black schools perform in the bottom 25% of student achievement. But the report also found that 16 majority black schools—13 of which are charters—have performance rates that are sometimes double the state average.

Four of Fortune's nine charter schools are on the list of 16 over-performing schools, including three in Sacramento.

“By taking a look at the high-performing majority African American schools, we can learn how these schools are achieving results at scale with African American students—a challenge for the typical California public school,” the report stated.

Not so fast, says Adamson, who warns that accurately diagnosing the problem isn't the same as accurately presenting a solution.

While the study addresses a critical issue, Adamson wrote, “the conflicts of interest render the report's findings of charter school success and recommendations of incentivizing charter schools as unsubstantiated.”

The fact that Fortune coauthored the study amounts to research bias, and the report doesn't account for the variables between public and charter school admissions, Adamson noted. “The article subtly conflates charter school success with two issues: student selection and ethnicity,” he wrote.

According to state education data, 66% of students meet English and math proficiency at Fortune's eponymous school in Sacramento. Two other Fortune schools in Sacramento—William Lee College Prep and Hazel Mahone College Prep—also made the list with more than 40% of students meeting proficiency levels.

Still, despite the higher success rates, people remain cautious over whether charter schools are effective. And for good reason.

Lots of public money, lots of closures

A 2019 report from the Network for Public Education, titled “Asleep at the wheel,” showed that charter schools across the country have received nearly $1 billion in federal grants through the 25-year-old Charter School Program, despite nearly 25% of those schools closing or never opening their doors.

In California, where nearly 10% of K-12 students are enrolled in charters, the failure rate is nearly 40%, the NPE report stated.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill overhauling the state's charter school laws for the first time in decades. The bill allows local school boards the power to reject charter school applications based on financial impact. But the law also protects existing charters from school districts' financial considerations when applying for renewals.

The bill passed after months of debate between charter advocates and the state teachers union. Charter advocates insisted the original bill's moratorium on new charter schools would all but end school choice efforts in the state.

The compromise allows for charter growth, but with limits dependent on local districts.

‘Death’ in the classroom

Meanwhile, California is threatening black youth with “a bleak future” because of the state's failure to provide them with a quality education, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said at the rally.

In January, Weber introduced Assembly Bills 1834 and 1835, which would require the California Department of Education to audit whether schools are investing as much they should be in disenfranchised students.

The bills were introduced after the state auditor found that districts were letting hundreds of millions of designated dollars go unused to let it roll into their general funds. The money was often intended to help English learners, low-income students, and foster and homeless youth, the auditor said.

The bills haven't moved much in committee, and it's unclear if charter advocates will back them as they would force the publicly funded, but privately operated schools to be more transparent.

But Weber, who authored the bill that restricted police use of deadly force, said she feels it's a matter of life and death.

“I know that if you are not prepared, the world will crush you, and we have had too many of our children crushed,” the San Diego Democrat said at the rally. “And while I'm trying to save lives and keep police officers from shooting us, we also have to make sure that we don't kill our children in the classrooms. Death is death—whether it's physical or psychological. We have to be prepared.”