This article originally appeared on AlterNet.
The charter school industry is coming under increased attack by national civil rights leaders for its unequal and antidemocratic practices in the communities it purports to help by privatizing K-12 schools.
On Saturday, the board of directors at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ratified a resolution passed this summer at its national convention calling for a moratorium on charter expansion and strengthening charter oversight. The NAACP vote came after intense lobbying against the resolution from the industry and its allies, including editorials in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, a letter from black pro-charter legislators from California (where the sector gets almost anything it wants), and out-of-state protesters who were bused in and interrupted the NAACP’s proceedings.
“We are moving forward to require that charter schools receive the same level of oversight, civil rights protections and provide the same level of transparency, and we require the same of traditional public schools,” said Roslyn M. Brock, NAACP chair, in a statement after the 63-member national board vote. “Our decision today is driven by a long-held principle and policy of the NAACP that high-quality, free, public education should be afforded to all children.”
“The NAACP’s resolution is not inspired by ideological opposition to charter schools but by our historical support of public schools—as well as today’s data and the present experience of NAACP branches in nearly every school district in the nation,” said Cornell William Brooks, NAACP president and CEO. “Our NAACP members, who as citizen advocates, not professional lobbyists, are those who attend school board meetings, engage with state legislatures and support both parents and teachers.”
There are now 6,700 charter schools across the country, educating 3 million students. The initial idea for charters was to create locally run experimental schools. However, as the industry has grown, especially since 2000, it has become dominated by corporate educational chains and franchises with ambitions to become national brands.
In a move increasingly typical of the K-12 privatization industry, the charter industry slammed the NAACP, claiming the industry is on the side of the children. This claim ignores what has become obvious to many in education circles: that charters are siphoning billions of public funds away from traditional public schools and leaving behind a trail of deep problems that need to be addressed, including unequal admissions and overly test-centered academics; private school boards replacing locally elected and appointed officials; and a business model that encourages fiscal corruption and self-dealing at taxpayer expense.
“The civil-rights group votes to keep minorities trapped in poverty” said the Wall Street Journal’s Sunday editorial, asserting the NAACP doesn’t know what’s best for members. “If these gentry progressives are waiting for urban schools to reform without competition from charters or vouchers they are consigning generations of children to diminished lives.”
The Journal is implying it is the fault of public schools that poverty endures, not decisions and actions by the business leaders to withhold profits from the working- and middle-classes. Other top charter lobbyists issued statements saying the NAACP let down the grassroots, but failed to reveal that the moratorium critics they cited were organized by industry-funded groups.
“Across the country, charter public schools are working for hundreds of thousands of black families,” Nina Rees, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools president and CEO, said. “[This vote] also ignores the thousands of families and black leaders who have stepped forward over the last two months urging the NAACP to reconsider their decision. More than 150 parents and grandparents traveled to Cincinnati to ask the NAACP, ‘When are you going to start representing me?’ The answer from the board’s vote: Not today.”
Rees’ comments were among the more tempered. Before the vote, Politico.com reported that “Kevin P. Chavous, the founder of Democrats for Education Reform (DEFER), said ratifying the moratorium would be ‘a new form of Jim Crow.’" Joel Klein, the ex-New York City school chancellor who sanctioned many charters under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has personally subsidized the school privatization movement, tweeted, “The 2d "A" in @NAACP stands for Advancement. Try telling that to many thousands of black families now on wait lists for charter schools.”
The NAACP’s call for a moratorium was hardly radical, nor was it isolated. Last summer, after its convention attendees approved the draft resolution, a national coalition of local civil rights groups called the Journey for Justice Alliance issued a statement affirming the need to halt charter expansion. (The NAACP previously approved a 2014 resolution opposing school privatization, and a 1998 resolution opposed the creation of charter schools that did not have to meet public school standards.)
“The Journey for Justice Alliance wholeheartedly unites with the NAACP in calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion and the Movement for Black Lives Platform, which calls for an end to school privatization, and we humbly appreciate having a role in developing the education demands,” the coalition said in August. “We also call for an end to school privatization with a moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs and co-locations. We want an end to mayoral control, state takeovers and other privatization schemes that remove our right to hold public officials accountable for the education policy they set; and curiously target cities whose public school systems serve primarily African-American and Latino children. These actions do not result in improved academic outcomes for our students, but grease the rails for brokering the responsibility of educating our children to private operators. Our members across this country are not blinded by the illusion of choice.”
The NAACP said a moratorium was needed until several conditions were met.
“We are calling for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter schools at least until such time as: (1) Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools; (2) public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school systems; (3) charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and; (4) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”
The NAACP vote is the second major rebuke of the school privatization industry in recent months. Earlier this summer over DEFER’s objections, the Democratic Party adopted platform language about charters that was far less accommodating than in the past, calling for more accountability and transparency. While Bill and Hillary Clinton have been charter supporters going back to his presidency in the 1990s (when the first schools opened), late last year Hillary Clinton recited some of the critic’s points in a speech where she said too many charters “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or if they do, they don’t keep them.” That comment was praised by teachers’ unions, who jeered at Clinton in a speech this past July at the National Education Association convention where she said charters and traditional public schools should share ideas.
Meanwhile, late last week before the NAACP vote, Christopher Edley, a Clinton campaign education adviser, told Politico before a New York City forum on school reform that “there’s much about the NAACP resolution with which she would agree.” He said “to the extent that the NAACP is concerned with ensuring that charter schools are held accountable for student success in a way that is at least similar to how other public schools [are], the NAACP is right and she agrees with that.” Medley also said that she was concerned with “ensuring that charters that are performing poorly are either improved or eliminated” and “ensuring that when there are good lessons to be learned from charters, that we make sure to try to export those to the rest of the public school system.”
In several weeks, two states—Massachusetts and Georgia—will vote on state ballot measures to allow charter expansion. In Massachusetts, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has come out against the privatization bid, despite support from the state’s Republican governor. However, in Georgia, the industry is asking voters to again amend their constitution to allow for charter expansion. If successful, as the industry was several years ago, half of Atlanta’s schools could be given to privatized charter operators.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).