Equity & Diversity

Hispanic Group Quietly Initiates Big Charter Push

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 21, 2001 6 min read
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From Houston to St. Paul to Philadelphia, community-based groups that serve Hispanics are convinced they can do a better job at education than regular public schools do.

And quietly over the past 18 months, a leading national Hispanic advocacy group has responded by raising $10 million from private foundations to launch an initiative to help such groups create and support 50 charter schools aimed at Latinos.

Six local affiliates of the National Council of La Raza, which is based here in Washington, have already opened such schools with the help of grants from the initiative. Another 11 affiliates are in the process of planning schools.

The names of these new charter schools include Spanish words such as nueva esperanza—"new hope"—or names of respected Hispanic leaders, including the farmworkers’ advocate César Chávez as well as the Mexican-American educator George I. Sánchez. But the creation of the schools is motivated as much by a desire for high academic standards as the expectation of studying and celebrating Hispanic culture, their leaders say.

“It’s about outcomes,” said Danny Cortes, the chief administrative officer of the 320- student Nueva Esperanza Academy Charter School in Philadelphia, which was opened last fall by an NCLR affiliate. “The reason we’re in this business is not because we’re Latinos, but because someone is failing our students. If the public schools were working, we wouldn’t need these schools.”

‘Communities of Need’

La Raza’s initiative is the largest of a growing number of efforts by national community-based organizations to support the work of their local chapters or affiliates to found charter schools, said Jon Schroeder, the director of the Charter Friends National Network, based in St. Paul, Minn.

Charter schools are publicly financed but operate independently of many of the regulations that govern most other public schools. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia permit the establishment of charter schools.

The Charter Friends National Network, a confederation of state charter school associations and resource centers, has published a guide to help community-based groups start charter schools. Mr. Schroeder also is a member of the grant-review committee for La Raza’s charter school initiative.

Mr. Schroeder said NCLR’S effort “is a very significant development for the charter school movement in the credibility it provides on the political side and the impact that it’s going to have qualitatively.”

The NCLR has more than 250 community-based affiliates that provide services to Hispanics ranging from after-school programs to affordable housing and day care. In Washington, the organization advocates policies and programs on behalf of Hispanics.

Other community-based groups studying charter school plans— whether to provide technical aid or grants—include the national YMCA, Youth Build USA, and Volunteers of America Inc.

What these organizations have in common is that they provide programs for people who generally haven’t been well- served by the public schools, Mr. Schroeder said.

That is certainly true of the YMCA, said Glen Haley, the director of the association’s Strong Communities Agenda. “We have YMCAs that are in communities of need,” he said. “The educational needs of those children we serve are great, and they aren’t being met.”

Local YMCAs in Detroit, Houston, and Akron, Ohio, have already started charter schools. Mr. Haley said the Chicago-based national YMCA is submitting proposals to foundations and corporations in the hope of launching an initiative similar to La Raza’s.

But representatives of some national education groups suspect charter schools won’t be the means of providing a high- quality education to all of the nation’s children any more than other educational reform models have.

“As far as charter schools go, there are some good ones and some bad ones,” said Michael Pons, a policy analyst for the National Education Association. “People don’t realize how much work it is to get a school up and running.”

The NEA says it supports charter schools, but is critical of some state charter laws that it believes have lax accountability standards. The nation’s largest teachers’ union prefers to see the kinds of changes that charter school administrators say they are striving for occur within existing public school systems, Mr. Pons said.

“If Hispanics are interested in smaller schools, smaller class size, and teacher quality,” he said, “let’s replicate those things in the public school system, and then you don’t need these charter schools.”

Anthony J. Colón, the vice president for La Raza’s Center for Community Educational Excellence, looks forward to a day when Latinos are taught well in existing public schools, and there won’t be a need for charter schools.

“The public school system has failed Latino children,” he said. His group remains hopeful, however. “Do we think we can work with them to get back on track? Absolutely.”

One of the motivations of the NCLR charter school plan, he added, is to create models for teaching Hispanic children that regular public schools will want to emulate.

“We’re Latinos,” Mr. Colón said. “We’re saying, ‘We have a huge stake in our children, and we know some things about them that you may not know.’ ”

School Choice Distinctions

Mr. Colón and other Hispanics interviewed last week, however, distinguished between supporting charter schools—one form of school choice—and private school vouchers, another choice option.

In Cleveland and Milwaukee, for example, eligible families can receive publicly financed tuition vouchers to send their children to secular or religious private schools or out- of-district public schools.

In undertaking its charter school initiative, the NCLR has accepted funding from the Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville, Ark., and the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which have supported both the charter school and voucher movements.

La Raza also received $6.7 million for its charter school initiative from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, based in Seattle.

The reasons that some Hispanics gave for opposing vouchers differed somewhat from those given by such organizations as the NEA and the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, which criticize vouchers, in part, as draining public school funds.

Mr. Colón, who is of Puerto Rican descent, said La Raza opposes vouchers because of “design concerns.” The NCLR initiative requires grant recipients to provide special education and English-language-acquisition programs. Mr. Colón said he worries that voucher programs don’t make the same educational demands.

And Richard R. Farias, a Mexican-American who is the president and chief executive officer of the Raul Yzaguirre School for Success in Houston, said he wouldn’t be inclined to support vouchers until he was assured they truly target children in low-income families. The charter school is named after the NCLR’s president.

At the same time, a Hispanic businessman recently formed a national organization to promote a myriad of school choice options for Hispanics, including vouchers.

Robert B. Aguirre, who is of Mexican and Spanish descent and is a board member of the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation, which provides privately funded vouchers to children in San Antonio— has incorporated the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.

The group has eight trustees, including Mr. Aguirre, but still lacks a president and headquarters.

Nonetheless, the organization has already taken one public action: It signed a legal brief filed by the Washington-based Center for Education Reform in support of Cleveland’s voucher program, which is being challenged in a case that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court during the court’s current term.

“With us, the issue isn’t so much school choice or no school choice,” Mr. Aguirre said. “The issue is who gets to have choice and who doesn’t.

“We have to make a commitment to improvement of educational outcomes for all Hispanic children no matter which option they choose,” he continued, “but they ought to be able to choose among a full array of options equal to those who have money.”

Funding for this story was provided in part by the Ford Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing definition of public schooling.

A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Hispanic Group Quietly Initiates Big Charter Push

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