Based on its century-long mission and in-the-trenches fight for social justice, it certainly goes without saying that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is an organization built on good intentions and good causes. It’s one of the few reliably steady organizations African Americans can depend on when freedoms are compromised by generations of oppression, segregation and institutional racism.
Which is why it came as a surprise when NAACP delegates called for, and the NAACP board ratified, a national ban on charter schools.
From its annual convention in late July to its fateful board vote last week, the storied civil rights organization’s critique of public choice schools was strangely brutal and swift. Among a number of misguided points was the unfounded charge that charter schools had somehow encouraged school segregation rather than what they really do: actively suppress it. One provision compares the crucial educational institutions to “predatory lending” networks.
Not surprisingly, the blowback has been decidedly strong. Prominent and widely respected education experts and organizations have roundly condemned it. Outlets such as the Washington Post called it “ill conceived.” Former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller argued that the resolution could cause the unintended consequence of undermining the hard work charter schools have achieved in making a difference in the lives of black children.
There’s good reason for that sentiment. While the NAACP and its affiliated chapters believe that they are helping the plight of public schools by keeping funds and highly successful students within those systems, its members are, unwittingly, taking those students a few steps back.
One should empathize with struggling public school systems, especially those in many underserved urban areas. And there is a need to devise innovative solutions to our nation’s lingering K-12 education crisis.
But scapegoating public choice schools for that crisis potentially puts the kids we’re all fighting for at greater risk. Missed in the political fisticuffs is a grim alternative: If publicly funded charter schools disappear tomorrow, 3 million students, primarily black and Latino, will be faced with the greatest disparities and be in the most desperate need of a quality education. Left out of the resolution is the fact that nearly 30 percent of black and Latino students attend public charter schools. Will private and parochial schools pick up that slack? Who then benefits from the numerous private and Catholic schools that remain—those in existence long before the creation of public choice schools?
What NAACP delegates and board members overlook is that while students of color are stuck with fledgling public school systems, wealthier and mostly white students have access to better private and parochial schools. Is that any more fair or equal or less segregated? Do we allow affluent families unfettered access to elite schools while killing the same for underserved families? Educational success stories like Kipp, Rocketship, SEED and K12 all cater to kids of color and give parents a choice. Do we then rid state-funded schools of the desire to compete with private schools that only the wealthy enjoy?
No force is more powerful an equalizer than education. It is inextricably linked to opportunity and future economic success, and it is—by far—the most potent antidote to rampant poverty.
It’s here where public charter schools empower communities in need. Parents know and appreciate this, a glaring oversight by advocates supposedly tasked to represent community interests. Yet a whopping 82 percent of black parents support the option of charter schools, according to a nonpartisan National Alliance for Public Charter Schools survey; other polls, such as the YouGov/Pathways survey, show that an overwhelming majority of parents across all racial demographics support greater educational options and specialized programs for youths in need.
If you don’t trust what black families are telling polls, then take a look at what black families are doing. Charter school enrollment has skyrocketed from about 400,000 students in 2001 to nearly 2.9 million today—with blacks constituting 30 percent of that population. More black and brown students are in charter schools than in traditional schools. Thousands more remain on waiting lists.
Before public choice schools emerged, economically disadvantaged families were left with no educational alternatives beyond what they were assigned. Choices were rare, even as wealthier, socially mobile parents exercised choice by sending their children to better private schools or posh zip codes with better-funded public schools. What charters accomplished was a paradigm shift: offering underserved families actual access to a fresh educational option they would otherwise have never had.
Why take a stand in direct conflict with black and Latino families that want a choice? Relentlessly pushed by threatened teachers unions, NAACP delegates unfortunately fell for the myth that charter schools are not legitimate public schools. But that defies both logic and fact. Charter schools are public schools. They’ve existed as a fast-growing part of the American public education fabric for over 25 years. Charter school students even equal or surpass their peers in other public schools.
Still, NAACP delegates and other charter school critics highlight legitimate grievances. After all, our nation’s record with respect to African Americans and public education is woeful. Too many black students are dropping out of schools or languishing in bad ones. America still lacks the national will to address systemic problems plaguing our public education system. The NAACP should be commended for putting a spotlight on this national tragedy.
But the modern charters of today are not a return to the segregated pits of yesterday. By law, charter schools are open to all. By law, they can’t racially discriminate. In fact, most charter schools intentionally operate in low-income urban communities to serve diverse populations. Newer models further expand the geographic reach of charter schools. Online charter schools give students who live anywhere in the state—urban, suburban and rural communities—choices and equal access to innovative educational programs.
America’s modern public schools are not segregated by charter schools. They are segregated by income, a grossly unequal system that assigns students to schools based on district boundaries and racially insidious funding disparities. Hence, impoverished communities are forever tethered to the worst schools for generations. But charter schools are smashing right through education systems that keep letting our kids down. It’s unfortunate the NAACP didn’t recognize that today. Still, it doesn’t mean the conversation is over for tomorrow.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Nate Davis is executive chairman of K12 Inc., a technology-based education company and leading provider of online learning programs to schools across the U.S. He is also a regular contributor to The Hill.