NAACP resolves to issue charter school movement a reality check

I’ll admit it.

My first reaction was to think, “No, they’re wrong!”

The NAACP approved this resolution, authored by the California-Hawaii chapter, last month. If ratified by the national board in the fall, it will become official policy. Look it over and see what you think:

No, they’re wrong!

But then again… who am I to have an opinion about the NAACP’s opinions?

Julian Vazquez-Heilig (chair of the committee that authored the resolution) and Jesse Hagopian are among the many already lauding the resolution and the strong stance against charter schools, viewing charters and the Teach For America/ed reform sector as puppets ushering a pathway to privatization. 

Other black leaders have been outspoken in their disagreement with the resolution. This from the Washington Examiner:

Jacqueline Cooper, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, told the Washington Examiner that the moratorium was "inexplicable."
"The fact that the NAACP wants a national moratorium on charter schools, many of which offer a high-quality education to low-income and working-class black children, is inexplicable," Cooper said. "The resolution is ill-conceived and based on lies and distortions about the work of charter schools. At their next meeting, we urge the board to reject this resolution and protect parental choice."
Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, also criticized the NAACP in a statement. "The public charter school moratorium put forward at this year's NAACP convention does a disservice to communities of color," Jeffries said.
"This moratorium would contravene the NAACP's historic legacy as a champion for expanding opportunity for families of color. In communities of color throughout our country, public charter schools are providing pathways to college and careers that previously were not available."
Jeffries added that the NAACP seemed to be unjustly attacking charter schools while turning a blind eye to bad traditional public schools.
"Indiscriminately targeting all charter schools, even the many great public charter schools that are offering students a bridge to college, while ignoring underperforming district schools, undermines the quality and integrity of our entire education system ... We'd be happy to partner with the NAACP to sanction or shut down low-performing charter schools. We'd oppose with the same resolve as the NAACP any charter that seems designed more by a desire to segregate than to innovate."
Steve Perry, founder and head of Capital Preparatory Schools, went on NewsOne Now to criticize the national NAACP. "They couldn't be more out of touch if they ran full speed in the other direction," Perry said. He said the national group is "out of touch even with their own chapters ... This is more proof that the NAACP has been mortgaged by the teachers union and they keep paying y'all to say what they want to say."
According to a report released in January by the Black Alliance for Educational Options, black students in public charter schools learn the equivalent of 36 extra school days per year in math and 26 extra school days in reading. The gains are even higher for black students living in poverty.


Like every discussion of education, race and equity, this requires a nuanced conversation. Like every non-fictional scenario, the lines are not black and white. Vazquez-Heilig, talking with The 74, interpreted the resolution he helped write as living in the gray area.

“I think what the NAACP is saying is we need to stop and take stock,” he said. “It doesn’t say we need to abolish charter schools, but we need to reevaluate where we are with charter schools right now.”

I have been an outspoken supporter of charter schools in Washington State, and I remain supportive today. I hear this as a reality check — and not one that just appeared overnight.

Traditionally, many civil rights groups have been vocally pro-charter because they know that more options are better. But at a certain point, those new options have to prove they are structured and run in a fundamentally different way, or else they will be revealed simply as different versions of the unacceptable status quo. The UNCF, as just one example, wrote a report four years ago now called “Done to us, not with us."

No matter how well-intentioned and good-hearted the education reform movement might be, unless it is guided by the voices of the communities it seeks to serve, it can’t really be the solution.

The data, however, supports charters, and there are many, many success stories and positive outcomes, just as there are many failures.

Charter schools create the space, governance-wise, to be the fundamentally different entities we need — a true alternative to the status quo. That freedom is badly needed, and it’s what makes good charter schools such a good alternative for the many students not set up for success in our current public school system.

But this possibility of equity is not guaranteed, and charter schools won’t live up to the promise of their freedom without an explicit, intentional focus on equity in process and outcomes; a commitment to examining everything through the lens of race, class, and privilege; a redistribution of power so that students, families and communities have the power to shape their schools’ design.

Otherwise, if reform is enacted without input and local leadership, it’s left up to the individuals running the schools to ensure equity. It’s up to the individual teachers and school leaders, and the individuals at charter management organizations, on school boards, and at charter school associations. And that’s at best a roll of the dice if they have not fully examined their personal biases and their organizational equity practices.

What's being called out here is paternalism. Let’s be clear. If you are white, you are probably not talking about race, and you (we — me too) are certainly not talking about it or living it in the same way as a person of color.

So, if a charter school, or a charter management organization, or a charter association, or a school board, etc., is predominantly run by white people, they need to be vigilant about blind spots, about centering students in every decision, about listening and learning in communities, building true partnerships with parents, forging authentic relationships with civil rights organizations and community leaders, examining their models, curricula, and discipline policies.

And, and, and, and.

The plot is still thick, but regardless of who does and doesn’t support the NAACP’s resolution, it remains a reality check.

For the ed reform movement, it is a call to do more than “engage” the communities it serves. If education is to be reformed, it needs to be done in a way that empowers communities of color and helps them to reform their own schools according to their vision and the wisdom of their lived experience. 

For me, as a white person, it’s a call, or a reminder, to constantly check myself.

I still believe in the promise of charter schools. I still believe in the academic integrity and good intentions of the education reform movement, of Teach For America, at the same time that I recognize the accomplishments, challenges and enormous promise of our traditional public school system.

I support any system, movement or ideology when it is building on the assets and input of students, families, and communities. If they promote better academic and broader student outcomes in a culturally responsive way, they have my support.

But they have to continually earn my support, just as they have to continually earn the support of the students and families they serve. I have to be continually sure the organizations and people and ideas that have my support are living out the promises that earned that support in the first place.

And I have to be sure I’m not saying, “No, you’re wrong,” when a community of color says what they believe is best for themselves.