Black Organizations Say No — or at Least, Slow Down — to Charter Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 8th, 2016.
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At its national convention in July, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the nation’s premier civil-rights organizations, passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools. The resolution said, among other things, that charters have contributed to segregation, have used disproportionately high levels of punitive and exclusionary discipline, and pledged that the NAACP will seek to promote stronger investigative bodies to oversee charter school fraud, corruption, and waste. The resolution will not become official policy until the NAACP’s national board convenes later this fall, but it builds on previous resolutions passed in 2010 and 2014 that were also critical of charter schools.

A coalition of more than 50 black-led organizations known as the Movement for Black Lives—aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement—also released a wide-ranging policy platform last week outlining a collective political agenda that the groups had been hammering out since more than 1,000 activists and organizers gathered in Cleveland last summer.

Though their platform focuses on issues ranging from prisons and police to economic justice, a considerable portion is focused on education. In addition to calls for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a fully-funded education, the Movement for Black Lives demands a moratorium on charter schools, an end to school closures, and an end to “market reformer” programs like Teach for America.

The new calls for national charter moratoriums from both the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives highlights the growing divides among civil-rights organizations and people of color over support for the so-called education reform agenda.

Jonathan Stith, the national coordinator for the Alliance for Educational Justice, a network of 30 youth-led groups across the country, co-authored the Movement for Black Lives’ education proposals. I asked him how their coalition arrived at their position on education reform as they were crafting their policy language, given that many black families support school choice.

“We definitely hear that, and that’s part of the reason why our platform calls for community control,” he says. “I think what you hear from those groups [that support charters] is that they feel that they want some level of control and influence over public education, and we by no means seek to deny that.” Specifically, the platform calls for things like democratically elected school boards and ending state takeovers.

“We recognize that for families, the first priority is to find the best educational opportunity for their children, and some families feel that charter schools provide that,” Stith says. “But we feel that is a false choice; charter schools are used to pull funding from other schools, they destabilize traditional public schools, and ultimately lead to their closures.” He adds that there is a growing number of black families in charter schools who have had bad experiences, and have been pushed out with few rights and protections. “For us, the ideal that we’re seeking is community control and an end to privatization,” Stith says.

Last week, Roland Martin’s talk show, NewsOne Now, featured a debate on the NAACP’s resolution that included Hilary Shelton, the bureau director of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the NAACP; Dr. Steve Perry, the founder of the Capital Preparatory charter schools; and Shavar Jeffries, the president of the Democrats for Education Reform. All four men in the conversation were black.

“[The NAACP] couldn’t be more out of touch if they ran full speed in the other direction,” Perry said, arguing that many local NAACP chapters remain strong advocates for charter schooling.

“Charter schools have proven themselves throughout this country to change the lives of children of color,” added Jeffries. “In many of our cities, they are beacons of hope.”

Shelton defended the NAACP’s resolution, and stressed that his organization was not calling for an elimination of charter schools—just to halt the opening of new ones until a closer look could be taken at their impact and whether they abide by civil-rights laws. A new report released this month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Public Advocates found that more than 250 charter schools in California discriminate in their admissions policies.

The NAACP’s new resolution calls out charter schools for having “contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.” The Movement for Black Lives policy platform makes two references to Brown v. Board of Education, but notably does not mention segregation or integration.

Hiram Rivera, the executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, another co-author of the Movement for Black Lives education platform, told The American Prospect that segregation did come up in discussions over the past year as the coalition groups hashed out their platform language, but that “folks had different opinions” on the value of school diversity, so they decided to focus on “the root causes” that lead to school segregation. Rivera added that there wasn’t a broad enough consensus on school integration, as opposed to issues like inadequate school funding.

“We did discuss it and I think where we landed was to call for a new set of strategies and tactics to reach the end of Brown, which we believe is the fulfillment of our human rights in education,” says Stith.

Some Teach for America alumni have risen to prominence within the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years, among them DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett, who helped organize protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was killed in 2014. Teach for America has also been highly supportive of the movement, though it declined to comment on the new Movement for Black Lives policy platform.

Some have asked whether the education policies put forth by the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives were influenced by financial support from teachers unions. At the bottom of the Movement for Black Lives platform page, under a “resources” subsection, there was a link to demands made by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a network of ten national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

“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,” Dr. Steve Perry told Hilary Shelton on NewsOne.

Activists have pushed back on this narrative. “The union wasn’t at the table, and my response to that accusation is that it is used to discredit and minimize the voice of the actual impacted communities,” says Stith. “Everything we put forth comes from our young people—black, Latino—who don’t need to be paid by the union to tell you what is wrong. Often I think people devalue the intelligence, the commitment, and the brilliance that exists inside of our community by always saying it’s the union paying us to say it.”

These debates among black organizations and civil-rights group are unlikely to end soon, and they raise charged questions about who speaks for whom, especially around matters of racial justice. School choice advocates point to research studies that suggest black students perform better in charter schools than in traditional public schools, and to surveys showing support among black families for school choice. But a host of other black-led groups and civil-rights organizations have repeatedly raised concerns with education reform over the years, pointing to things like disproportionate suspension rates for black charter students, the impact of school closures in black communities, and the growing financial distress of traditional public schools.

If the NAACP national board approves the new charter resolution, then local chapters will be expected to adopt the new policies—including the moratorium on creating new charters. It’s unclear at this point whether this would prompt pushback from any local chapters.

Hiram Rivera says that groups, organizations, and citizens can “take pieces of [the Movement for Black Lives platform], those pieces that speak most to them” to begin conversations with policy-makers, elected officials, and decision-makers. Groups like the Philadelphia Student Union, he adds, will continue to keep doing the work they’ve been doing for 20 years. “But now it’s all in an official document, and hopefully this document will allow others to see what we’re working on, use it, and get involved.”

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