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Unpacking the NAACP Charter Resolution: Part I

Note: This week, Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow in education at AEI, will be guest-blogging.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the most well-known civil rights organization in the US. It is also often and quite unfairly considered the ultimate arbitrator for black education. This was made evident by its resolution released last month at its national convention held in Cincinnati. The resolution calls for a moratorium on the federal charter schools program in general and privately managed charter schools in particular. Although the resolution will not become final until the national board meets later this year, its claims about charter schools have created quite a buzz in the school reform space. This includes responses from Democrats for Education Reform and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, to name a few.   

The NAACP's resolution is puzzling—not solely due to its advocacy of a moratorium on charter schools nor its persistent commitment to maintaining the "one best system" for delivering teaching and learning to children. Rather, it's because of its fusion of the two.

In squaring the contradiction of the NAACP's belief in public education as a means for improving the economic mobility of black schoolchildren—really all schoolchildrenand its historical opposition to public-school-based parental choice programs beyond magnet schools, let me unpack the resolution in three parts.

1. The NAACP is well-intentioned 

For starters, the NAACP's concern about the plight of black schoolchildren in public schools is core to its mission. Long before school reform became a sexy and profitable career choice, a theme for a Hollywood movie, or fodder for TV plots like "The West Wing" and "House of Cards," the NAACP was in the business of reforming public education for students, families, and educators. Examples include the NAACP's campaign for better funding for public schools and a campaign for equal teacher salaries during the first half of the twentieth century. Currently, the NAACP is addressing disproportionate suspension rates, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the lack of black students in AP courses. Campaigns of this type remain important to supporting opportunity within public education.

But over time, the NAACP's commitment to public education—which it sees as a good exclusively delivered through public schoolsfailed to keep pace with the development of the charter school movement that began in Minnesota in 1991 with support by Democratic Senator Ember Reichgott Junge. Why? The NAACP believes that charter schools undermine the mission of public education, which comes across clearly in its 2016 resolution. It affirmed a similar anti-charter resolution in 2014 and 2010. The consistency of this position reveals that the NAACP believes that it can best champion its commitment to public education and black children by opposing charter schools.

 2. The resolution is more a critique of governance structures than of charter schools

At the same time, the NAACP's resolution is extremely nuanced. Thus, its critique has less to do specifically with charters and instead goes to the heart of governance model challenges that plague public education in general. Take one statement from the resolution:

Weak oversight of charter schools puts students and communities at risk of harm, public funds at risk of being wasted, and further erodes local control of public education. 

This statement is about bureaucracy, not freedom. "Oversight" of any public institution is important for fiscal and managerial purposes. But beyond that, any link between "oversight" and student achievement or teacher and parental satisfaction is weak. In fact, freedom from cumbersome "oversight" is a hallmark for innovation in the public sector as evidenced by the success of magnet schools, theme-based public high schools, and open enrollment policies that afford families choice within the public school system. "Oversight" is necessary though freedom is essential to the success of charter schools.

3. In case anyone forgot, it is an election year

Finally, the NAACP's resolution must be seen within the broader context of presidential year politics and the ongoing debate over whether charter schools should remain a central part of education reform. The 2008 election of Barack Obama brought about themes of hope and change. In President Obama's inauguration speech, he said "our schools fail too many" and "and we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age."

Although President Obama's speech did not outline a specific plan to help our schools, his selection of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education indicated that charter schools would be part of the solution. In fact, the increase in federal funding for charter schools during the Obama presidency helped spread the charter school movement in the US. Will this investment continue under a Clinton administration? Only time will tell. But what's for sure is that two of Clinton's biggest supportersthe American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA)will weigh in on this topic.  

In 2007, AFT endorsed Secretary Clinton for president, while the NEA endorsed then Senator Obama after he won the democratic nomination. AFT and NEA both finally endorsed Obama in 2008, but neither group has been completely pleased with his eight-year, pro-charter school agenda. In this presidential election, AFT and NEA have both endorsed Clinton.  

Given NAACP's support of Clinton, its historical relationship with teacher unions, and each organization's support for traditional public schools, only time will tell if this resolution is merely the first episode in a long fight for the soul of American education under a Clinton presidency. One thing seems clear for now: the NAACP does not believe the expansion of charter schools with the support of federal and state money is in the best interest of black and brown schoolchildren.

Why is this the case? Look for my second post on Wednesday that will dive into past practices of freedom of choice laws and how they have shaped the NAACP's view of charters today.  

--Gerard Robinson

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