NAACP opposition to charter schools harms black students

Competition in education, which gives parents a right to choose where their children should be educated, is something all Americans should support.

Boston Renaissance School Facade by City Year via Flickr/Creative Commons

WASHINGTON, October 28, 2016 — The latest moves by the NAACP against charter schools will negatively affect the demographic the group represents.

At its national convention in July, the NAACP approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on the expansion of privately managed charter schools. The Movement For Black Lives, a network of Black Lives Matter organizers, also passed resolutions criticizing charter schools and calling for a moratorium on their growth.

The NAACP went so far as to liken the expansion of charters to “predatory lending practices” that put low-income communities at risk.

Charter schools provide parents with an opportunity for school choice and give inner city parents an opportunity to remove their children from poorly performing schools. Several studies by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students enrolled in charter schools in 41 of the nation’s urban regions learned significantly more than their traditional public school counterparts.

According to one study, charter school students received the equivalent of 40 days of additional learning a year in reading. Educational gains for charter school students turned out to be significantly larger for black, Hispanic, low-income and special education students in both math and reading.

Although some charter schools have been poorly run, the performance advantage among their students has been found to be particularly significant in the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Washington, D.C., Memphis and Newark. There is heavy demand for more charter schools among low-income black and Latino families who are often trapped in failing school districts.

Where charter schools are doing well, demand for admission is high. In New York City, charter schools enroll about 107,000 students, roughly 10 per cent of the city’s total enrollment. But more than 44,000 students who sought admission for the current school year were turned away. In Harlem and the South Bronx there are now four applicants for every charter school seat.

The Black Alliance For Free Educational Options (BAEO) and the National Alliance For Public Charter Schools has launched a campaign to tell the story of why more than 700,000 African American families have chosen charter schools. More than 160 African American advocates and community leaders have urged the NAACP to reconsider and learn more about how charter schools are helping black families.

In a letter, they declare:

“A blanket moratorium on charter schools would limit black students’ access to some of the best schools in America and deny black parents the opportunity to make decisions about what’s best for their children. Instead of enforcing a moratorium, let’s work together to improve low-achieving public schools and expand those that are performing well.”

One of the letter’s signers was Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Oliver Brown, plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, and founding president and CEO of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research.

“Over 60 years ago my father joined with numerous parents to stand with the NAACP and fight for 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,” said Brown Henderson.

In opposing charter schools and real school choice, the  NAACP is flying in the face of the views of black parents. There are now more than 6,600 charter schools across the nation, educating nearly 3 million children. Black students account for 17 percent of charter school enrollment nationally. The American Federation for Children national school choice survey, conducted in January 2016, found that 76 percent of African Americans support school choice. Polling by BAEO also found that the majority of black voters surveyed supported charter schools.

In September, more  than 25,000 parents, students and educators attended a rally in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park calling for an expansion of the city’s charter schools. Among the speakers was actor and hip-hop artist Common who said, “I’m here to tell you that you participating and being a part of charter school success stories is your path to possibility.”  In New York City, black charter school students were 60 percent more likely than their public school counterparts to earn a seat in one of the city’s specialized high schools.

The idea of choice in education, which includes a voucher system and charter schools, is attracting both liberal and conservative support. Opposition comes primarily from teacher unions. Last summer, speaking to the National Education Association, Hillary Clinton declared:

“When schools get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working and share it with schools across America.” For this statement, Clinton was booed by NEA members.

Editorially, The Washington Post declared:

“The reaction speaks volumes about labor’s uniformed and self-interested opposition to charter schools and contempt for what’s best for children…Since the first charter school opened 25 years ago in Minnesota, support for the non-traditional schools has grown with nearly 3 million students in more than 6,700 charters in 42 states and the District. Demand is high with parents of school-age children—particularly those who have low incomes—overwhelmingly saying they favor the opening of more charter schools…We urge the NAACP leadership to put the interests of African American children ahead of the interests of political allies who help finance the group’s activities…”

Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, who is black, says of the NAACP:

“The organization would rather deny black children good schools than risk losing money from teacher unions. The organization’s primary concern today is self-preservation and maintaining its own relevance, not meeting the 21st century needs of the black underclass.”

While some charter schools have had problems, as in Detroit, where charter schools are not outperforming the traditional school alternative, the real reason for opposition by teacher unions, the NEA and the NAACP is that they threaten the union monopoly on education. Most charters are non-Union and their growth is at the expense of poorly performing Union-run public schools.

The NAACP interest in opposing charter schools seems to have nothing to do with the well being of black students. According to the Labor Department, unions have given the NAACP and its affiliates at least $3 million since 2010. The two major national teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) gave the NAACP $265,000 last year, significantly increasing their contribution between 2010 and 2014.

Teacher unions have also been giving financial aid to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which influences groups such as the NAACP. According to the Labor Department, the AFT and NEA have given the CBC Foundation and CBC Institute $911,000 since 2010. Open Secrets campaign donation data shows that the AFT and NEA have given CBC members $253,000 and $206,000 respectively, this cycle.

It is ironic to see civil rights groups oppose charter schools even though black Americans are learning more at charters than at traditional public schools. In Boston, for example, students in charter middle schools outperform those in traditional public schools by 2 to 3 years worth of learning in math and about half that in reading.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-charter civil rights group, calls the NAACP resolution “inexplicable,” and urges the NAACP board to reject it.

Competition in education, which gives parents a right to choose where their children should be educated, is something all Americans should support. It is particularly important for low-income families in minority communities, who are often consigned to poorly performing schools.

Conservatives have long embraced the idea of free choice in the form of a voucher system and of charter schools. Observing the success of such schools, many liberal voices, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have joined them. The NAACP should rethink its position if it hopes to remain relevant to the needs of the constituency it seeks to represent.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.