Charter schools and the struggle for progress: Why the NAACP has it wrong on the chapter of the civil rights struggle

Despite the rapid growth and high achievement of charter schools nationwide, the NAACP is opposing them — why?

Published October 7, 2016 10:01AM (EDT)

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During Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, Tim Kaine cited Barbara Johns, an African-American civil rights activist who led a walkout of her Farmville, Virginia high school to protest school segregation in 1951. Kaine said that walkout led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision striking down “separate but equal” doctrine.

More than 60 years later, the dream of educational equality is far from realized, and sadly the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), by considering a moratorium against charter schools, is now playing the role of obstructionist. Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Oliver Brown, the plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, recently joined with CharterWorks, a campaign opposing the moratorium.

Launched September 21, the CharterWorks campaign is organized by the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools began with an initial press release explaining the campaign’s mission. On October 15, the NAACP will meet to finalize its decision on the moratorium. Brown Henderson is part of a group of hundreds of African-American leaders hoping to convince the NAACP to reconsider its decision.

For these pro-charter families, the current education system is failing and charter schools offer an alternative to the status quo. Many charter schools in urban areas — such asNew Orleans, New York and Washington, D.C. — have seen improvement among students who struggled in previous learning environments. For them, and for their allies like myself, the charter school movement is the next chapter in the civil rights struggle.

Brown Henderson wrote in a statement ahead of the NAACP meeting, that said, in part:

Over 60 years ago my father joined with numerous parents to stand with the NAACP and fight for all African American students stuck in a separate, broken education system. Brown v. Board of Education created better public education options for African American students, and made it the law of the land that neither skin color, socioeconomic status, nor geography should determine the quality of education a child receives. I am eternally grateful to the NAACP for their leadership on this case and for giving African American families the opportunity to send their children to the best schools that would help them to succeed. But I am troubled that in 2016, the NAACP would oppose placing better educational choices in the hands of families across the country. Charter public schools present African American families, especially those in low-income communities, with the choice to choose a public option that is best for their child. We must protect this choice.

Brown Henderson's views echo those of millions of families across the country, including many black and brown families, who see charter schools as a lifeline to escape broken and underperforming schools. The Department of Education reports astronomical growth in public charter school enrollment, now up to 2.5 million students (at nearly 6,500 schools nationwide) — that’s a 462 percent increase since the 2000-01 school year, compared to just a 5.6 percent increase in regular public school students over the same period. Clearly, parents are happy with the results.

In advance of the NAACP meeting, CharterWorks released a letter signed by more than 160 black education and community leaders that responds to the common anti-charter criticisms cited in the NAACP resolution. It states:

The proposed resolution cites a variety of cherry-picked and debunked claims about charter schools. The notion of dedicated charter school founders and educators acting like predatory subprime mortgage lenders—a comparison the resolution explicitly makes—is a far cry from the truth. In reality, charter schools generally receive less per-pupil funding than traditional district public schools and often receive little or no funding to purchase buildings or maintain classrooms. Despite these hurdles, charter schools are helping students achieve at higher levels than traditional district schools. Not only is the resolution’s mischaracterization of charter schools misinformed, but the proposed nationwide moratorium on new charter schools would ultimately reduce opportunities for Black students, many of whom come from low-income and working-class families.

And support for charter schools is strong among Latino families as well. An overwhelming 85 percent of Hispanic parents say they want greater choice in selecting which public school their child should attend, regardless of where they live, according to a study commissioned by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The study also found that Hispanic students enrolled in charter schools outperform their public school peers in college readiness and academic progress.

Sadly, the NAACP appears poised to cave to the partisan pressure of teachers unions, which are thinly-veiled Democratic operations that put ideology ahead of students. In the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education, the NAACP should return to its noblest cause, advocating fochoice and access for our most vulnerable.


By Carrie Sheffield

Carrie Sheffield is a Salon Talks host, founder of Bold and adviser to Lincoln Network. She previously wrote editorials for The Washington Times, covered politics for POLITICO and The Hill and analyzed municipal credit for Goldman Sachs and Moody's Investors Service.

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Brown V. Board Of Education Charter Schools Department Of Education Naacp Tim Kaine