In calling for a moratorium on all charter schools, the NAACP has declared, after years of discussion, that it’s concerned enough about local governance, millionaire charter school board members and public fund-spending to take a stand. While there are a plethora of arguments to be made, for me it all comes down to following the money.
Full disclosure: I began working for the public school systems in 1994, having graduated from a public high school in Illinois. Prior to that, I spent the first five years of my teaching career at a Catholic private school in Hyde Park, Ill. Of the children in my family, I am the only one who’s taught or been an administrator of a public school. Both my sisters work in the charter school sector.
Some charter schools do the good, hard work of giving our black children possibilities they didn’t get in the public school systems. With that said, my opposition to and criticism of charter schools comes at the hand of my own experience, coupled with the research showing that charter schools exploit some black and brown communities.
Let's be clear: Public school systems are problematic, too. Institutional racism and punitive punishments are the reasons why, just two weeks ago, I finally quit my job. After a decade of watching the continued marginalization of our black students, I decided that there must be another way to effect change outside the system, since the whiteness of it enjoys the privilege of protecting itself.
For-profit education has been on the rise in the United States for some time, despite being shrouded in conversations about public school, union busting and promoting the “failing schools” narrative—or maybe because of those things. Public schools use public funds; therefore, they are held to a higher standard from which many charters are immune. Still, it’s the money that flows into charters that gives many people pause. Those who hold the purse strings are too often those for whom some "white savior" complex is paramount in their charity.
Among the things the NAACP is concerned about are the severe segregation of student populations still managed by wealthy white investors, weak oversight and the wasting of public funds, and how charter schools can mirror predatory lending practices in communities of color. And if I was curious about who the civil rights organization's detractors were before, I needed to look no further than respectability politics offender and reckless-tweeting Steve Perry, who immediately opposed its anti-charter position.
Perry, a black man who happens to profit off the very things charter schools exploit, has had some accountability issues of his own when it comes to charter schools. While there are some charters that give local educators and administrators control and still manage to turn out successful academic narratives, Perry tarnishes his own school by his online antics and behavior, and his opposition to the NAACP's position has little integrity behind it.
What Perry and his ilk seemingly refuse to acknowledge is that public school systems use public funds and elect local boards whose transparency is critical to their growth and success. Conversely, following the crooked charter school money trail leads us to the capitalistic rich-get-richer proponents for whom these for-profit labyrinths serve as cash cows with little governance.
It is the pernicious and incestuous relationships between the economic and political stakeholders who have acted, supposedly, on the public’s behalf to be “the grand architects of educational reform" that should alarm anyone serious about our children's education. There is a huge difference between gambling on our children and investing in them.
And our children's potential shouldn't be calibrated by profit potential. Morna McDermott, a professor of education and administrator for United Opt Out, addresses this in her lecture "The Writing on the Wall." These vested-interests investors, she says, go all the way back to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the closed-door meetings of the elite who continue to privatize education in the United States.
High-stakes testing aside, what remains problematic about charter schools is the damage to communities and continued marginalization of the very communities they aim to help, something in which the NAACP has a vested interest. The larger problem is the pushing out, or marginalizing, of impoverished communities in the first place. When jobs and civic unrest and crime become an issue, the charter school movement aims at placing itself in the center to fix education, but those same investors fail to address what created those poor communities in the first place.
Charter schools can be viewed as bandages on the broken arm of poor communities, often overpopulated by people of color. If the NAACP wants to block them from profiting off of them, I am all for it.
Kelly Wickham-Hurst is the founder and CEO of Being Black at School, a new initiative for parents and educators committed to making school safe for black students. She was previously a school administrator and teacher.