As America’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP has fought to this very day to give each of the nation’s youngest citizens a quality education regardless of race. We have even taken that fight to the marble steps of the Supreme Court. There, in the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled, “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Over 60 years later, these words ring resoundingly true in the hearts of parents who know all too well that in all too many cases, the education their children are receiving remains separate and unequal.
Earlier this year, 2,000 delegates representing virtually every school district across the country passed a resolution calling for a reasoned pause on charter school expansion, not rash elimination. The National Board then ratified the convention delegates’ position, reaffirming decades of NAACP support for public education. Many allies have commended our position and raised very similar concerns, including the Movement for Black Lives, which called for an end to charter schools as we know them just weeks after our July convention. But there has also been much unfounded outrage, with some critics even claiming that our decades-old position is contrary to the NAACP’s mission.
The NAACP has called for a pause on the expansion of charter schools in order to ensure the quality of them all. We are also calling for solutions, such as better educated and certified teachers that work for students across the board.
Let us be clear, there is a role for high performing charter schools. However, we cannot continue to ignore the proliferation of low-performing charter schools that lack accountability. According to the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, while 27 percent of charter schools outperform traditional public schools in math and reading, 25 percent of charters performed worse. Charter schools are doing no better than traditional public schools at meeting the expectations that we parents hold for our children’s education.
We are sensitive to the needs of African-American parents across our country whose public school systems have failed their children. Parents should not have to wait for the public school system to get this right. However, many parents have also been lured by the false promises of charter school systems that actually underperform public schools. As The New York Times reported earlier this year, in Detroit the results have been disastrous to both traditional and charter schools. And, there are similar races to the bottom in communities all across the country.
Every school district is like a large family, made up of all sorts of students with diverse skills and abilities. Charter schools fragment those families, selecting only some students with the most apparent skills and abilities. As a result, only about 25 percent of charter schools have student bodies that mirror the demographics of their respective sending districts.
Research demonstrates that though charter schools promise a superior education, many have created a privileged subset of privately run, publicly funded schools with minimal government oversight, transparency, or accountability and many fail to provide a quality education. The quality of charter schools is inconsistent at best.
Thriving charter schools often owe their success to exclusionary selection processes. In best-case scenarios, admission depends upon a random lottery with only enough spaces for a handful of lucky children. The vast majority of children are sent back to underperforming schools. When we hold charter schools to different and more lax rules than public schools, the most at-risk students fall through the cracks.
For example, many charter schools cherry-pick students who will test well, behave obediently, and have parents with the time to invest in their children’s education. This procedure ensures the charter school’s appearance of success and leaves English Language Learners and students with special needs to traditional public schools. Federal education data shows that amongst the young people enrolled in charter schools, students of color face disproportionate disciplinary action fueling the preschool to prison pipeline. By applying stringent “no excuses” codes of conduct, they suspend students at higher rates than traditional public schools— and they suspend Black students four times more than White students. The same pattern holds true for students with disabilities.
Finally, there is a practical, good-government concern about some charter schools: when the government puts public funds in the hands of private (often for-profit) operators, it has created some troubling and egregious losses of oversight. As John Oliver notoriously railed on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” such meager systems for accountability have given way to cases of money-mismanagement, such as in Ohio.
The NAACP’s latest resolution is not an ideological rejection of charter schools, but a reflection of our historical support of public education – based on today’s data and the present experience of our members in school districts around the country.
The NAACP has called for a pause in the growth of charters at least until certain minimum standards apply to all public schools. Our taskforce will lead the charge in ensuring that schools comply with the following: (1) transparency, oversight, and accountability; (2) the maintenance of public funding for traditional public schools; (3) no “cherry picking” by expelling students with special needs and challenges; (4) no perpetuation of de facto segregation; and (5) consistency with existing NAACP policy on basic civil rights protections in public education.
The NAACP does not seek to swiftly exterminate charter schools or extinguish the enthusiasm for effective innovative education that drives them. Instead, just like the NAACP lawyers who argued Brown v. Board, we continue to strive for a public education system that meets the needs of our children. We advocate for a reinvestment of skill, faith, and funds in building a public school system that serves 100 percent of America’s schoolchildren.
Cornell William Brooks is the president and CEO of the NAACP.