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Note to the National NAACP: Ignore Michael Bloomberg

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Billionaire Michael Bloomberg spoke to the national convention of the NAACP about why they should believe in the saving power of privately managed charter schools. He tried to persuade them to rescind their brave 2016 resolution calling for a moratorium on new charters.

This thoughtful report explains why the NAACP called for a moratorium. 

The NAACP deserves our thanks for its resolution and should not back down from its principles, which represent the views of its members, based on hearings in seven cities and long, careful deliberations.

The major conclusions of its resolution:

We are calling for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter schools at least until such time as:

(1) Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools
(2) Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system
(3) Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
(4) Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

Historically the NAACP has been in strong support of public education and has denounced movements toward privatization that divert public funds to support non-public school choices.

“We are moving forward to require that charter schools receive the same level of oversight, civil rights protections and provide the same level of transparency, and we require the same of traditional public schools,” Chairman Brock said. “Our decision today is driven by a long held principle and policy of the NAACP that high quality, free, public education should be afforded to all children.”

Unlike the NAACP, Bloomberg believes in charter schools, along with other billionaires, including the Waltons, the Koch brothers, and the DeVos family. He has funded rightwing candidates across the nation to promote charters; he has also funded candidates who favor vouchers, such as a hard-right school board in Douglas County, Colorado, and in Louisiana, where one of his protégés, State Superintendent John White, is a strong voucher supporter.

Speaking recently to the NAACP, Bloomberg boasted about dramatic gains for black and Hispanic students during his 12 years in office. While he was in office, he boasted that he had cut the achievement gap between black and whites students in half. At his recent speech to the NAACP, he said he reduced it by 20 percent. Neither claim is true. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gap between blacks and whites on eighth grade mathematics was 36 points in 2003 (when he began his education policies) and 38 points in 2013 (the end of his mayoralty). On the NAEP test of eighth grade reading, the gap was 25 points in 2003, 22 points in 2013, but jumped to 29 points in 2015. If he succeeded in reducing the gap, it should have been on a steady downward trajectory. It was not, and it was certainly not cut by 50 percent or 20 percent.

Bloomberg did not mention to the NAACP the many selective high schools he opened whose admission requirements narrowed opportunities for black and brown students (an article in Chalkbeat in 2016 referred to “staggering academic segregation” in the city’s high schools, noting that “over half the students who took and passed the eighth-grade state math exam in 2015 wound up clustered in less than 8 percent of city high schools. The same was true for those who passed the English exam.”

Nor did he did mention the ongoing decline in the number of black and Hispanic students who qualified for the city’s most selective high schools on his watch. The city’s most selective high school, Stuyvesant, has 3,300 students; only 29 are black. Of the 895 offered admission to Stuyvesant this fall, only 7 are black. The decline did not start with Bloomberg, but his policies accelerated the trend of declining enrollment of black and Hispanic students in the elite high schools. He even added more elite high schools. Worse, he raised the entry standards for the gifted programs in the elementary schools that prepare students to apply for the selective high schools, a move that was devastating to black and Hispanic students.

In 2007, Bloomberg’s Department of Education decided to raise the score needed to get into a gifted program, a decision that dramatically reduced the number of black and Hispanic students qualified to enter these programs. Chancellor Joel Klein announced that the city intended to standardize admissions to gifted and talented programs across the city. In the future, Klein said, only those who scored in the top 5% on a standardized test would be admitted. Up until that time, local districts made their own decisions about admissions to gifted programs. Local districts objected to Klein’s new policy, and educators and parents warned that the high cut score would disadvantage black and Hispanic children.

Klein and Bloomberg didn’t listen.

They were wrong.

By 2008, before the program launched, Klein eased the 95% cutoff, lowering it to 90%. Nonetheless, the proportion of minority students who enrolled in gifted and talented programs plummeted.

When New York City set a uniform threshold for admission to public school gifted programs last fall, it was a crucial step in a prolonged effort to equalize access to programs that critics complained were dominated by white middle-class children whose parents knew how to navigate the system.

The move was controversial, with experts warning that standardized tests given to young children were heavily influenced by their upbringing and preschool education, and therefore biased toward the affluent.

Now, an analysis by The New York Times shows that under the new policy, children from the city’s poorest districts were offered a smaller percentage than last year of the entry-grade gifted slots in elementary schools. Children in the city’s wealthiest districts captured a greater share of the slots.

The disparity is so stark that some gifted programs opened by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in an effort to increase opportunities in poor and predominantly minority districts will not fill new classes next year. In three districts, there were too few qualifiers to fill a single class.

The new policy relied on a blunt cutoff score on two standardized tests. According to the analysis, 39.2 percent of the students who made the cutoff live in the four wealthiest districts, covering the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, Staten Island and northeast Queens. That is up from 24.9 percent last year, even though those districts make up 14.2 percent of citywide enrollment in the entry-level grades: kindergarten or first grade, depending on the district.

The total enrollment in gifted classes was not only whiter and more Asian, but the total enrollment was cut in half.

The number of children entering New York City public school gifted programs dropped by half this year from last under a new policy intended to equalize access, with 28 schools lacking enough students to open planned gifted classes, and 13 others proceeding with fewer than a dozen children.

The policy, which based admission on a citywide cutoff score on two standardized tests, also failed to diversify the historically coveted classes, according to a New York Times analysis of new Education Department data.

In a school system in which 17 percent of kindergartners and first graders are white, 48 percent of this year’s new gifted students are white, compared with 33 percent of elementary students admitted to the programs under previous entrance policies. The percentage of Asians is also higher, while those of blacks and Hispanics are lower.

Faced with the fact that the standardized test with a high cut score was excluding black and brown children and shuttering G&T programs in poor communities, the Bloomberg administration did not change the policy.

The policies that Bloomberg put in place continue to determine entrance to gifted and talented programs. For savvy white parents, a place in a G&T program is highly coveted because it promises small classes, smart peers, and special treatment. Getting into one of those programs is very difficult, even for savvy white and Asian parents. Many parents invest in tutoring and test prep to get their four-year-olds and five-year-olds ready for the crucial entry test.

At present, the citywide gifted programs are accepting only students who score at the 99th percentile or higher! The more demand, the fewer places and the higher the cutoff score.

Black and brown students are nearly 70 percent of the public school enrollment, but win only 27 percent of the seats in gifted programs. So much for Bloomberg’s plan to expand opportunities!

To understand the nightmare that Bloomberg and Klein foisted on the city’s children, read Josh Greenman’s recent account of his family’s experience. Josh is on the editorial board of The New York Daily News, which is very pro-charter and pro-testing.

He writes:

How does the process work? Four-year-olds take a nationally normed standardized test (actually, two tests, the NNAT and the OLSAT, which are supposed to measure reasoning ability and general intellectual aptitude). No bubble sheets: It’s administered in person by an adult. Those above 90th percentile qualify for district programs. Those above 97th percentile qualify for citywide programs.

Those are the technical qualification thresholds. In practice, you need a 99 to qualify for a citywide school and usually something like a 95 to qualify for a districtwide program, though it depends on the district.

Once you get in the door as a kindergartener, you stay in the school or program through fifth grade (in the case of district programs) or eighth or 12th (in the case of citywide schools).

If this strikes you as kind of nuts, well, that’s because it is: A test taken on one day as a 4-year-old, a test for which your parents can prepare you, can put you on one track, separate and apart from your peers, for your whole K-12 education.

The citywide schools are coveted. They have excellent reputations and are by most objective measures very good schools. Of course they’d be, as the kids only get in through an intense filter, essentially ensuring engaged parents and high test scores.

They also, surprise surprise, have few black and Latino students and fewer low-income kids than the citywide average…

Why the hell should kindergarteners, first graders, second graders and so on have separate programs in district schools, much less separate citywide schools? Isn’t this part of a big underlying problem, letting (mostly) whites opt out of the common public system?

It’s a very fair question…

Would we consider it a victory if eliminating those programs resulted in a public school system that’s now 70% black and Latino 80% or 90% black and Latino?

Of course, that outcome depends upon what individual parents do, including how they respond to having their kids, who they often consider advanced, taught in general education classrooms.

But my head hurts when I start to think through how unfair the process is, at least in New York City, for plucking young kids out of general-ed classrooms. I’m also cognizant of how doing that intensifies racial and ethnic and income segregation, and related resentments. And of the negative effect of draining a small number of “chosen” kids, who tend to have intensely engaged parents with extra time and money on their hands from those classrooms.

Josh’s daughter made it into a local G&T program. He recognizes the trade offs. He understands that the G&T programs keep white and Asian families in the city and the public schools.

But that was not the rationale in 2007. The rationale was that having a standardized test with a citywide cut score, the same in every district, would expand opportunities for black and Hispanic students. Bloomberg and Klein said that tightening the admissions requirements would increase diversity! Anyone familiar with education policy and practice could have told Bloomberg and Klein that a single high standard on standardized tests would have a dramatically negative effect on children of color. At the time, they tried to tell them. But they were arrogant and they never listened to anyone outside their corporate MBA (masters of business administration) circle.

Here is a parent who warned them in 2007 that basing admissions to the gifted programs would be a disaster and would increase segregation and decrease opportunity for the children who need it most.

Bloomberg was a great mayor on matters involving public health and the environment.

But on education, he surrounded himself with businessmen and corporate types, and he took their bad advice about the virtues of high-stakes testing, standardization, privatization, letter grades for schools, and “creative disruption.” Bloomberg should not be boasting to the NAACP now about his non-existent accomplishments. And the NAACP should not listen to Bloomberg, no matter how much money he offers them.

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