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."
At stake in the battle is the future of public school education, especially for black children. The charter school model gives these institutions greater autonomy than traditional public schools, in exchange for greater accountability in test results and other measures of student achievement.
More than 1.6 million public school students attend nearly 5,000 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools, cnn.com reported in May. As of 2008, blacks made up 15 percent of students in traditional public schools, versus 29 percent of those enrolled in charter schools.
While there are charter schools in all kinds of neighborhoods around the country, the political rhetoric advocating them generally revolves around the idea of providing better opportunities for poor, minority children in inner cities. The New York Times reports that 60 percent of all New York City charter school students were black, and 31 percent were Hispanic, in 2009-2010, the most recent academic year for which statistics are available. In traditional public schools, Latinos, at 40 percent of the enrollment, made up the single largest group, while blacks made up 30 percent.
Until the lawsuit, the NAACP had carefully navigated this divide, maintaining its historic alliance with teachers unions while also supporting charter schools and school choice in some ways, the New York Times writes.
Arguments Against the NAACP
The suit has provoked a firestorm of comments from all sides of the aisle, including longtime civil rights advocate Michael Meyers, who was a student of the late Roy Wilkins, the NAACP's longtime executive director.
"The NAACP is on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of the lawsuit," Meyers, executive director of the New York City Civil Rights Coalition, told The Root. "It ought to be on the other side of the argument, with those seeking to close chronically failing, poor and miserable public schools. The NAACP used to stand for standards. Now it's opposed to standards. This is not a civil rights organization that is future-oriented."
"What is the NAACP's agenda?" Michael Lomax, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund, and Michelle Rhee, founder of StudentsFirst and the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, asked in a June 2 op-ed in New York's Daily News. "It has a storied history of fighting for the right of black children to go to public school. It won that battle and we're all better for it.
"But in this fight — the fight for children's right not only to go to school but to get a good education — the NAACP seems to have switched sides," the op-ed continues. "It's fighting not for the right of kids of color to get a good education, but to keep failing public schools open and to limit kids' ability to go to public schools that are working."
To that end, Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State NAACP, became a flash point in the bitter debate when she told a Bronx parent of a charter school student in an email that she was "doing the business of slave masters" by asking the NAACP to withdraw its lawsuit, according to the New York Post.
The comment prompted Dennis Walcott, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, to respond in a June 9 Daily News op-ed. "First, it is disheartening that an individual who represents an organization I admire would equate me to a 'slave master,' " wrote Walcott, the former longtime head of the New York chapter of the Urban League. "Such rhetoric is disrespectful and in no way productive to discussions about our students' future."
New York City: The Latest Battleground
While Dukes refused to back down from her comments, Jealous sidestepped the issue in the June 8 conference call and seized the moment to clarify the organization's position on the lawsuit. He also touted the NAACP's involvement in education-reform efforts across the nation, including pushing for teacher-tenure reform in California and supporting the state's "parent trigger law," which allows parents to vote collectively to reform local schools. In addition, Jealous cited the organization's longtime support of a decades-old lawsuit in New Jersey with the goal of ensuring that all children are treated fairly and given access to a high-quality education.
In New York City, Jealous maintained, the battle has been one of escalation. "They [NAACP branch leaders] tried reasoning with school officials and the chancellor and got the door shut in their faces," he said. "Finally, after trying all school year to get traction, they said enough is enough and filed a lawsuit, figuring it would jar folks into action and force them to focus on these issues. Our hope, now that we have everybody's full attention, is that we can get this solved quickly. We are open to all options to settle the suit."
Meanwhile, New York City's Department of Education is gearing up for a battle. "Our number one priority is ensuring that we are providing all of our students with high quality educational options, so we are taking every precaution to ensure these new schools open in the fall and serve the families who have already enrolled," Walcott said in a prepared statement for The Root.
"We continue to believe the lawsuit brought by the UFT and NAACP is lacking in merit," Walcott continued, "and we will vigorously fight it in court — but we will also take every step to continue adding high quality options and to protect our students against this purposeful attempt to spread chaos in our school system and hold children hostage in bad schools."
Lynette Holloway is a frequent contributor to The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine. Follow her on Twitter.