NAACP Suit Is Latest Salvo in Fight Over Schools

The lawsuit is ground zero in a battle splitting advocacy groups over whether charter schools can help our children succeed.

Opposing views: New York State NAACP's Hazel Dukes and New York CityEducation Department's Dennis Walcott (Getty Images)
Opposing views: New York State NAACP's Hazel Dukes and New York CityEducation Department's Dennis Walcott (Getty Images)

As states grappled with ways to reinvigorate the flagging public education system, charter schools were offered up as an attractive alternative: a way to break outside the mold and offer the kind of innovative learning environment and accountability for results that is more often associated with private schools.

Some critics fear that this alternative is now crowding out the public school system it was meant to supplement, creating a two-tiered system that leaves children in more traditional settings with fewer resources and options. That argument is the crux of a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and the United Federation of Teachers against the New York City Department of Education. They charge the city with favoritism toward 18 charter schools that share space in public schools.

The suit, filed last month in New York State Supreme Court, claims that charter schools are getting more than their fair share of space within public school buildings and have better access to playgrounds, gyms and cafeterias. It also disputes the rationale for closing 22 failing schools, including 15 that were part of similar litigation last year by the UFT and the NAACP.

The sides faced off in court on Tuesday during a hearing before Justice Paul G. Feinman, who extended a restraining order until July 1 that halts construction on a charter school on the Upper West Side, according to Beth Glenn, director of education for the NAACP in Baltimore. A new hearing has not been scheduled because Feinman is expected to hand down a written decision in the case, a clerk in his chambers told The Root. No date has been set for the decision, but it is expected to be soon, given summer vacation schedules and the quickly arriving start of the 2011-2012 school year.

But reports of a settlement in the case sparked a flurry of excitement last week because the NAACP reportedly accidentally sent an email to some media outlets. Curtis Johnson, an NAACP communications staff member in Washington, D.C., told The Root in a phone conversation, “It was prematurely sent out in error.”

Indeed, the lawsuit has been the center of controversy in recent weeks. It also asserts that the Department of Education ignored agreements it had reached as part of last year’s litigation to provide specific assistance to help many of the schools it tried to close last year, according to the UFT website. It furthermore charges that the DOE has ignored its legal obligation to seek the approval of New York state’s commissioner of education before it shutters a number of the schools.

The Stakes: Highest for Black Children

“Our fight in New York City is similar to the fights we’ve been involved in across the country in recent years,” Benjamin Todd Jealous, the NAACP’s president and executive officer, said on June 8 during a blogger conference call from New York City that the organization’s education director, Beth Glenn, and general counsel, Kim Keenan, attended. “We have been consistent in fighting for the best interest of all children and weighing each issue case by case.

“Here in New York City, we are presented with a [glaringly] unequal education,” he continued. “There are physical disparities in the same school building. Those of us who went to magnet schools in the ’80s might recall the pain caused when they put a magnet school inside a regular school, and the way in which the magnet kids were seen as different because they had everything, and the kids at the regular school had nothing.”