New direction

Tennessee chapter breaks off from national black education advocacy group

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Mendell Grinter speaks at a 2016 school choice rally in Memphis organized by the local chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, now called the Campaign for School Equity.

A Tennessee organization promoting school choice for low-income and working-class black families is parting ways with its national parent.

The Tennessee chapter of Black Alliance for Educational Options, which is headquartered in Memphis, is growing while the national organization is sputtering, according to state director Mendell Grinter.

Effective Friday, the Tennessee group will operate as The Campaign for School Equity, or CSE, according to an email sent Tuesday to supporters of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, known as BAEO.

“As BAEO embarks on a new journey, the Tennessee team will chart its own course with CSE, while upholding the BAEO organizational values that have guided the work to protect the educational interests of Black families since our founding in 2000,” said the email from Grinter and Jacqueline Cooper, national BAEO president.

Tennessee’s BAEO chapter has become an increasingly strong voice both in Memphis and at the state Capitol in promoting charter schools and tuition vouchers as avenues to strengthen education options for black children. It has eight employees in Memphis and recently hired a staff member in Nashville.

With the transition, Grinter said the state organization will continue its parent advocacy work and add student engagement to its roles. Grinter will remain as the group’s executive director.

The breakaway comes several months after Tennessee’s chapter transitioned to full funding from philanthropic organizations such as Hyde Family Foundations, The Poplar Foundation and Pyramid Peak Foundation. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat, which is a nonprofit news organization, also receives funding for its Tennessee newsroom from some of those same groups.)

BAEO founder Howard Fuller speaks June 27 at the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville. (Photo by National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)
BAEO founder Howard Fuller speaks June 27 at the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville. (Photo by National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)

BAEO was founded by Howard Fuller, who served as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools during the 1990s and has continued to advocate for school choice, including tuition vouchers to enable low-income children to attend private schools.

The departure of the Tennessee chapter will leave BAEO’s national organization with chapters in New Jersey and Louisiana. At one time, the Washington, D.C.-based organization had chapters in Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, home of the nation’s first voucher program aimed at low-income families.

The national organization was in limbo for about a year while searching for a new president until Cooper permanently took the helm in February. Most of the national staff was laid off in March, Grinter said. Fuller announced earlier this year that BAEO would discontinue its formal operations to launch a Social Innovation Challenge that would help determine the organization’s future endeavors.

Grinter said the urgency of work being done by the organization in Tennessee outweighs the desire of its leadership to weather the storm of uncertainty with the national organization.

“There’s definitely a need for more black-led organizations like BAEO,” said Grinter, 25, who came to Tennessee last summer after serving as its Kentucky director. And “it’s definitely time for a change. … For us on the ground, with the national stuff, we don’t have time for that.”

After Tuesday’s announcement, Grinter added: “I have such tremendous respect and love for the national organization and [am] so thankful for the experience. It is true that we’ve achieved tremendous growth and success for our work in Memphis, but it wouldn’t be possible with out the structure that BAEO provided.”

In Memphis, BAEO has pushed for expanding two initiatives aimed at turning around low-performing schools — the state-run Achievement School District and the Innovation Zone operated by Shelby County Schools. Its team also lobbied the state legislature earlier this year to pass voucher legislation, a proposal that had early momentum but ultimately failed.

The Campaign for School Equity describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan grassroots organization with a mission of expanding high-quality education options across Tennessee.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Grinter after the announcement.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.