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Unpacking the NAACP Charter Resolution: Part III

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 schools resolution calls into question the effectiveness of the largest and most well-known education reform movement in the US. Charter schools educate 2.9 million students in 43 states and the District of Columbia in 6,723 schools. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), that number is growing every year.

According to a 2015 Education Next Poll, 47 percent of the American public supports charter schools compared to 19 percent who oppose them, and 48 percent of parents support charter schools compared to 15 percent who oppose them. What do the two constituencies the NAACP wants to protect from charter schools think? Well, 44 percent of blacks and 39 percent of Hispanics support charter schools compared to 16 percent of both populations who were in opposition.  

As for political parties, Republicans support charters more than Democrats: 56 percent compared to 40 percent. But what is most interesting is the opposition to charters: 25 percent of Democrats oppose charter schools, which is higher than opposition from the general public, parents, blacks or Hispanics. Only teachers oppose charter schools more at 41 percent (even though many charter schools are founded by teachers).

Massachusetts, which happens to have the highest performing charter schools in the nation, currently has its Democratic Party and state teacher union voting together to oppose the Charter School Expansion Initiative. The statewide vote is scheduled for November 8, 2016. Why? The teacher union claims charter schools "create separate and unequal conditions for success by failing to serve as many high-need students as their host districts." The New England NAACP opposes the initiative because, "as Brown vs. the Board of Education taught us...a dual school system is inherently unequal."

This belief fuels the following language in the 2016 NAACP resolution that said charters "failed the students draw to them by illusive promise of quality." 

This claim of "illusive promise" falls flat in the face of empirical evidence of who is choosing to enroll in charter schools. In 2004, for instance, blacks made up 32 percent of the charter school population. By 2014, 638,000 black students enrolled in a charter school--comprising 27 percent of the national charter school enrollment, which is higher than the 17 percent represented in traditional public schools.

How do black students in charter school compare academically to black students in traditional public schools? A review of the data from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University about school districts--where black students are a majority or near majority population--indicates that charter schools are making a difference for black students. The same is true for all low-income students regardless of race. 

Impact of Charter Enrollment on Annual Learning Gains by City, Race, and Income


Source: BAEO State of Education in Black America (2015).

It is worth noting that CREDO found that urban charter schools generate learning growth equivalent to roughly 22 extra days of math and 6 days of reading for their Hispanic students in general, 48 extra days in math and 25 extra days in reading for Hispanic students in poverty, and 72 extra days of math and 79 extra days of reading for Hispanic English language learners.

National polling data, student enrollment, and achievement results point in the direction that charter schools are not an "illusive promise" for black (or brown) America. Nevertheless, the NAACP's charter school resolution still makes people uncomfortable. Part of this discomfort is rooted in the symbolic politics of race and school reform.

Let's face it, the NAACP is synonymous with civil rights in education. Naturally, if the NAACP questions the legitimacy of charter schools, people think it must be because black and brown children in charters are in danger of losing their civil rights. This is a fair concern. However, if charter schools violate civil rights of schoolchildren, then someone forgot to inform civil rights leaders who support charter schools. Dr. Wyatt T. Walker is one example.

Dr. Walker is the former chief of staff to Martin Luther King Jr., and an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that, by the way, is applicable to charter schools. Seeing a need to help schoolchildren in Harlem, Walker co-founded the Sisulu-Walker Charter School in 1999. It was the very first charter school in the state of New York and the first approved by the State University of New York. In 2016, NAPCS bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award to Walker, marking only the second person to earn this recognition.

Rosa Parks is another example. President Bill Clinton noted this in a speech given to the National NAACP Convention in 1997. "I am pleased that Rosa Parks, who taught us a lot about dignity and equality, is now working to open a charter school in Detroit. And I urge you to consider doing so in your communities." Although the charter school never opened, Walker, Parks, and many less well-known civil rights leaders have affirmed their commitment to advancing opportunity for black America through charter schools.

A newer generation is doing the same. Examples include:

  • The Urban League opened the first charter school in Pittsburgh in 1998, and a business and economics charter school in Milwaukee in 1999;
  • The 100 Black Men of America, a civic organization whose goal is to empower black youth, opened the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences in 2003; and
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities alumni work in charter schools through Teach for America (TFA). Howard University was the nation's top producer of TFA corps members from medium size colleges in 2014, and Spelman College was the nation's top producer of TFA corps members from small colleges in 2015.

Lastly, if charter schools are an "illusive promise," then someone also forgot to inform black voters in Georgia. In 2012, 59 percent of Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment so state and local officials can approve the creation of a charter school. The Georgia NAACP passed a resolution in opposition to the amendment; nevertheless, black voters in 14 of 20 counties approved the charter school amendment by 61 percent. Black voters in the remaining 6 counties approved the amendment by a range of 42-49 percent.

With this said, just because blacks support charter schools in no way means they believe charter schools are perfect or above reproach. Examples of charter schools stealing money, or mistreating teachers and parents, exist. Charter supporters of all races must address this truth. The same is true for suspension rates. For instance, a Center for Civil Rights Remedies report showed over 500 charter schools had suspended black students at a rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher than the rate for white students. But traditional public schools have also been found to suspend black students at higher rates than white students. The next question that comes up is if charters on the whole suspend students more frequently than traditional public schools. A recent report by Nat Malkus showed that more charters actually suspend students at a lower rate than that of their neighboring public schools.

In closing, the NAACP's 2016 resolution is not a civil rights victory. Simply opposing charters does not solve our nation's education challenges. Neither does simply being for charters. Rather, truly addressing the deficits in our nation's education system will only occur when both sides are able to look at the US landscape with critical eyes and keep families and students at the forefront when crafting public policies.  

--Gerard Robinson 

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