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Unpacking the NAACP Charter Resolution: Part II

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)'s recent charter resolution comes as a shock to many school reformers and parental choice advocates. It is also a shock for those agnostic about charters in general but concerned about the plight of black, brown and poor students in public schools. Black students' alarming NAEP scores in math, English language arts, and civics should be a clarion call for a plan of action.

To answer that call, NAACP's plan requests more money and teachers to support "high quality free public education for all children." But for NAACP, charter schools are not in the "plan" because, according to an earlier resolution from the organization in 2011, they only help those "fortunate enough to win lotteries."

But aren't teachers, parents, and other stakeholders opening charter schools to help exactly who the NAACP says it wants to help—black, brown, and poor students across the US? Even though the NAACP is also trying to do right by these students, how it thinks we should concretely go about it is not the focus of the 2016 resolution nor, frankly, is it a legitimate question for examination. This is because the NAACP does not deem a charter school a legitimate public school.

According to the NAACP's view, a legitimate public school is open to all students; is accountable to non-privately-appointed boards; does not divert funds; adheres to state-approved accountability standards; and adheres to federal civil rights laws. NAACP believes charter schools violate these sacred tenants of legitimacy. The belief that charters lack legitimacy fuels the following language in the recent NAACP resolution:

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the NAACP reaffirms its 2014 Resolution, "School Privatization Threat to Public Education," in which the NAACP opposes the privatization of public schools and/or public subsidizing or funding of for-profit or charter schools; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the NAACP will continue to advocate against any state or Federal legislation which commits or diverts public funding, allows tax breaks, or establishes preferential advantages to for-profit, private and/or charter schools.

Despite its history of opposing public school models that fall outside of the lines of our bureaucratic norm, the NAACP's recent resolution on charters is a new revelation for many school reformers and parental choice advocates. In reality, the NAACP released its first charter school resolution in 1998 when the charter school movement was just eight years old. According to the Center for Education Reform, 1,208 charter schools were operating in 23 states and the District of Columbia by 1999. Democrats were among the leading sponsors and supporters of charter legislation. Approximately 350,000 students were enrolled in charter schools in 1999, which accounted for 0.7 percent of total public school enrollment. 

Black students accounted for 17 percent of public school enrollment in 1998; however, minority students accounted for 37.2 percent of charter school enrollment in 1998. In fact, students of color accounted for a sizeable percentage of charter school students, as the Hoover Institution makes clear below. 


Source: http://www.hoover.org/research/school-choice-evidence-comes

Teachers, reformers, nonprofit or for-profit organizations founded charter schools in places like Los Angeles, Newark, Houston, and Milwaukee—and often in zip codes with high concentrations of students of color, poverty, dismal achievement, or a combination of these characteristics. Why? Families demanded more options within the public school system. Charter schools were a response to this demand.

But even in the charter school movement's early years, the NAACP deemed charter schools an illegitimate pathway to reform. The opening sentences of the organization's 1998 resolution explains:

The NAACP unequivocally opposes the establishing and granting of charter schools which are not subject to the same accountability and standardization of qualifications/certification of teachers as public schools and which divert the already limited funds from public schools.

Each NAACP unit will convey this opposition to its federal, state, and local legislators and Boards of Education.

The NAACP opposed charter schools in resolutions between 1998 and 2016 (which at times included charters as part of the organization's broader condemnation of "privatization" in general).

The NAACP's 2011 resolution coincided with the organization suing the New York City Department of Education for closing traditional public schools and opening charters. When a nationally respected reformer questioned why the NAACP sued NYC over charter schools, the organization stated that he mischaracterized its position by affirming that its decision to sue the school board was not about charter schools. Shortly thereafter, the NAACP released a response stating that the organization "supports parent choice and all efforts to improve educational opportunity for children. We are not trying to close charter schools. Our goal is that every child will have the opportunity to attend the school of their choice this fall in a manner that is fair and equitable to all students."   

Although some may be perplexed by the NAACP's stance on charter schools, history shows us that the NAACP's concerns are rooted in something real—the coordinated resistance to school desegregation that used choice as a means to maintain the status quo in American schools.

An important example of this is the 1956 Southern Manifesto in which 101 members of Congress published a document on March 12, 1956 in protest of the US Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and 1955. This document sparked a massive resistance movement that sought to prevent an entire generation of black students from integrating public schools. For instance, nefarious "freedom of choice" schemes fueled an ideology to protect segregation and block opportunity. This resulted in the closure of black public schools, the firing of experienced black teachers and principals, and the creation of nonprofit organizations that accepted state-funded tuition grants to pay for racially exclusive private schools. During this era of fear-based choice, the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund led the effort to expel this form of parental choice out of our system of government.

Some members of the NAACP believe charter schools fall into the fear-based choice model. However, others hold a different view.

The majority of today's school reformers and parental choice advocates do not support a fear-based charter model. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers does not require its members to award a charter to all parties that submit an application regardless of qualification. The NewSchool Venture Fund and the Charter School Growth Fund do not invest capital obtained from Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs into the segregationist aims of a privately operated charter school. Rather, these stakeholders embrace a liberty-based choice model that promotes opportunity, not oppression.

At the time the NAACP's 1998 resolution questioned the worth of charter schools in US education, President Bill Clinton articulated a confident vision for charter schools during remarks delivered on July 14, 1998:

Across our nation, public school choice, and in particular, charter schools, are renewing public education with their energy and new ideas. Charter schools are creative and innovative, they are public, with open enrollment, and are strengthened by the commitment of parents and educators in the communities they serve.

This vision for charter schools belongs in the liberty-based model of choice. It did in 1998 and it does in 2016. Are stakeholders pushing a liberty-based model for charter schools? Look for my third post on Friday for an answer.  

--Gerard Robinson

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