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Q&A: Black Charter School Founder Says NAACP's Charter Stance Is Out of Touch

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It's been one year since members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people took the extraordinary step of calling for a ban on new charter schools.

Their reasoning? Charters—mostly through a lack of accountability and regulations—were hurting black students.

The NAACP's move cracked open a divide within the African-American communityon the subject. A highly visible contingent of the charter sector is devoted to serving black and Latino students. Earl Phalen is part of that group. He's the founder of a charter network of ten schools that serves mostly low-income black students in Indianapolis and Detroit.

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As NAACP members are meeting in Baltimore this week, and the group is set to release a report on charter schools, I called Phalen to ask him, one year later, what effect the NAACP's call for a moratorium has had on him and his work.

I started by asking what inspired him to launch his charter network, called the George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academy. The schools are named for his parents, who adopted Phalen when he was a toddler. He told me that his parents, who are white, were moved to adopt a black child after reading a Boston Globe story that said the vast majority of black boys in Massachusetts' foster care system would end up in prison by the time they were 21. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ed Week: Why did you decide to open a charter school?

Phalen: While in [Harvard] law school, ... we started to organize college students to mentor young black children, and I fell in love with direct service. And I discovered that was my calling. For 17 years, I led a nonprofit organization named after one of my professors, BELL. (The professor was Derrick A. Bell, Jr., Harvard Law School's first black tenured professor.)

We did afterschool tutoring and mentoring, and great summer programs, and then we would send the kids back to schools that were abysmal. I made the decision to move from out-of-school time to in-school time and the best place to do that was charters.

We felt we would have more flexibility to implement our model in a charter context—longer school day, longer school year, the ability to hire and fire teachers based not on seniority but on the results they deliver.

Ed Week: What was your reaction when you first heard the NAACP's plan to call for a ban on opening new charter schools?

Phalen: I think I had two different reactions: one was shock and disappointment. That was the biggest. I think shock and disappointment because millions of our kids—black and Latino and poor white children, are being served in a way that is radically different then it was five, 10 years ago because of charters.

The blanket notion that there should be a moratorium and this language that every charter is the same, whether for-profit or non-profit, low-performing or higher-performing, I thought was short sighted and disconnected from an organization that purports to be focused on the success of our children.

My second reaction is that the NAACP has been largely irrelevant as an organization for decades. If you asked our families, what does the NAACP do for you today, people would not be able to tell you anything that the NAACP has done for them—there are some good branches—but this is the case in almost every major city.

I was disappointed and shocked and I thought it was an ill-informed broad-brushed painting of the [charter] sector. If they had said we want more restrictions on the for-profits, we want tighter controls on shutting down low-performing schools, ... I would have had a better opinion of the motion. But as it was, I thought it was anti-community.

Ed Week: What has it been like for you, being a charter school founder who is also African American?

Phalen: I don't see the NAACP in the communities where I serve. So in that sense, it's been the same as it's been for a few decades. I think the part that is frustrating, is that there are so many great charter schools, and so many families who are over the moon thankful because of the existence of good schools.

The NAACP used to be at the forefront of getting what our community needed to thrive, but in my opinion they haven't played that role in decades.

Ed Week: What have you heard from other charter school leaders like yourself?

Phalen: I think the same level of frustration. If you purport to represent the communities that you serve, but you haven't spent considerable time in our schools, if you are living in the suburbs and have complete choice because of economic conditions, why are you coming in now and saying in this community, only the public school that exists—whether it's the worst school in the state—this is the only place that you can go. That's been the sense of many of my peers.

I think a lot of us thought it was the wrong policy in the sense of its breadth. I think many of us agree, feel that many for-profits have done a disservice to our children and that there should be more accountability for for-profits, as well as for nonprofits running a bad charter school.

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Photo courtesy of Earl Phalen. 

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