August 9, 2016; Education Week Blogs

Newton’s Third Law, which says that for every action there is an opposite reaction, sometimes applies when we are advocating for equality. One voice challenging the role of choice and charter schools in public education is matched by another voice speaking in support of having options. So when the delegates to the recent NAACP Convention called for a moratorium on new charters, it was not surprising to see an announcement from Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) calling on the NAACP’s board of directors to quash that action.

BAEO has been an advocate for the core principles of the educational reform movement—choice, charters and the common core curriculum—since its formation in 2000. They have seen school choice as empowering poor and minority communities and providing a road to future success. Jacqueline Cooper, the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, laid out BAEO’s reasoning in a statement given to Education Week.

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. The resolution is ill-conceived and based on lies and distortions about the work of charter schools.

In posing the choice as binary, Ms. Cooper is making the problem too simple. Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, another pro-reform advocacy group, recognized in a statement that the challenge is more complicated than that: “We should be fixing what’s broken and expanding what works, not pre-empting the choices of parents of color about the best schools appropriate for meeting the particular needs of their children.” And to do that, we need to do the work of understanding what might not be working to maximize all the educational benefits available to impoverished children and families of color.

Charter schools are part of the effort to shift responsibility for ensuring all children receive an equally excellent education from their respective communities. As public schools often managed by private organizations, however, some charter school boards are not connected to the political and social matrices of their students’ neighborhoods or school districts. Parents have the power of choice but sometimes lose their power as voting citizens.

Giving parents the power of choice in exchange for political power makes sense only if the choices are real. In an age of standardized testing to determine educational effectiveness, we do not yet know if the results charter schools produce are predictive of future academic or vocational success. And we do know that many charter schools selectively choose students in order to ensure positive test results. Many parents find it difficult to manage these systems of choice, which require time-consuming study and computer access, which can be hard to come by for low-income working parents.

Jonathan Stith, the national coordinator for the Alliance for Educational Justice and co-author of the Movement for Black Lives’ (MB4L) education proposals, described the negative community impact of charters and school choice in an interview with the American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen.

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. […] For us, the ideal that we’re seeking is community control and an end to privatization.

As the educational market has developed, we have other issues to ponder. Is the fact that charter schools are on average less racially and economically diverse than the typical public school good or bad, or just symptomatic of the underlying economic and residential segregation of our nation? Does it matter that many urban charter schools have adopted “no-excuses” disciplinary rules that lead to high rates of in-school and out-of-school suspensions?

In light of these concerns, the NAACP’s call for a moratorium seems on target. Doing so might give us time to reflect on the consequences of these policies and decide if charter schools actually deliver promised benefits or benefit only the select few.—Martin Levine