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NAACP moves ahead with its call for moratorium on charter schools

Congressman Al Green (D-TX) listens to Democratic Presumptive Nominee for President former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak at the NAACP Annual Convention at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, Ohio on Monday, July 18, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Leaders of the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the United States, took a controversial stand in October by ratifying a resolution calling for a moratorium on expanding public charter school funding until there is better oversight of these schools and more transparency from charter operators.

The move by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — which was supported by the Movement for Black Lives and the nonprofit Journey for Justice Alliance — was hailed by public education advocates but attacked by charter school supporters. Some of the critics were from other civil rights groups, underscoring a split in that community about the privatization of public education.

Charter schools — which are publicly funded by operated independently of public districts, sometimes by for-profit companies — are one key element of corporate school reform. They are praised by supporters as offering a choice to parents whose children would otherwise be trapped in bad public schools. But critics see charters as part of the movement to privatize public education, and the growth of charter schools has drained many traditional public school systems. The charter sectors in a number of states are severely troubled because of lack of sufficient oversight.

There have been calls from within the charter movement for more accountability, but a deep divide exists, with  many advocates worrying primarily about the loss of independence that more oversight would bring. The movement is also divided on how fast to grow and even what students to embrace. For the past 25 years, charters were largely promoted to help students out of failing schools, but increasingly some advocates believe all public school students should have an opportunity to enroll in a charter.

The issue is especially salient now, with President-elect Donald Trump having chosen Betsy DeVos as his education secretary nominee. She is a Michigan billionaire who is a fervent believer in charters and other forms of choice, such as voucher programs, which use public funds to pay for private school tuition. Her critics question whether she even supports public education.

Now the NAACP — which did not change its stance on charters despite the criticism — is moving ahead with a series of state-level hearings on the issue.

The group’s new National Task Force for Quality Education — a group created after the call for a charter moratorium was approved to study and recommend education policy — just held its first public session hearing in New Haven, Conn. Participants included James Comer, an internationally known child development expert and professor of child psychiatry at Yale University who pioneered the “Comer School Development Program,” which applies child and adolescent development principles to build relationships that allow students to take responsibility for their own learning. The sessions — including one scheduled in Orlando on Jan. 27 — will focus largely on inadequate school funding, accountability for charters schools and how charter funding affects traditional districts.

Here is a related piece by Jitu Brown, national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance, or J4J, a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities. J4J, with more than 52,000 members across the United States, is committed to winning community-driven school improvement and education equity in the United States.

J4J started in 2013 as parent and student organizations who were impacted by school privatization began to organize national mobilizations to protest policies such as school closings and to push for community-driven school improvement.  Brown says members are working to expand “Sustainable Community Schools” as a viable alternative to privatization to improve struggling schools.

Here’s his piece on why his group supports the charter moratorium even while it supports charters themselves.

By Jitu Brown

To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance  for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted — and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children.

Those who support corporate school reform have attempted to claim the mantle of the civil rights movement, with one of their biggest champions, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calling education the “civil rights issue of our time.” And we have seen a steady rotation of spokespeople for the privatization movement talk about the civil rights of children, including Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada and former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

But these privatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy. They do not constitute the entire civil rights movement. Indeed, if the privatization movement were serious about civil rights, then its supporters would stand with the tens of thousands of parents and students across the country who have protested, been arrested, and used other methods of peaceful resistance to the closings of neighborhood schools, sometimes to make room for new charters.

I stated in an October letter to the New York Times that we at the Journey for Justice Alliance are not anti-charter ideologues.  Many of our members send their children to both traditional public and charter schools.  We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them. Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago, “mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.”

We called for a moratorium on school privatization because of the realities on the ground. They include:

  1. Most charter operators can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better — at least when it comes to student standardized test scores — than traditional public schools.
  2. Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers. One 2015 study looked at nine cities impacted by charter expansion — Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Washington D.C.  — and found a  decline in the number of black teachers in recent years.
  3. Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation.
  4. The privatization movement uses deceptive language when promoting the growth of charter expansion. The notion of “parents voting with their feet” is often false. Look at what happened to Dyett High School in Chicago.  In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities.  The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools.  The district starved the school of resources, eliminated effective programs and encouraged students to transfer.  By 2015, the enrollment plummeted to 13 students.  I see that as sabotage, not “voting with your feet.”  After I and 11 other parents waged a 34-day hunger strike in 2015 to save Dyett, it opened as a neighborhood school this year with a full freshman class and a waiting list.

The biggest failure of the American education system is deep, entrenched inequity. In many places, black and brown children are not valued as much as their white counterparts.  We want the choice of world class, sustainable neighborhood schools to anchor our communities, just as white brothers and sisters enjoy.

To borrow from the late great organizer Ella Baker, until the education of black and brown children — black and brown mothers’ sons and daughters — is as important as the education of white children — white mothers’ sons and daughters, we who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.