NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous was dismayed at the vehemence of the verbal tirades and demonstrations against his organization for joining with the United Federation of Teachers to stop a handful of charter schools around Harlem from opening or expanding in public school buildings.
“We just had no idea how much tension it would create,” Jealous said. The NAACP simply regarded the lawsuit it filed as a way to prevent the loss of funds and space for chronically under-funded and cramped inner-city public schools.
The suit did not even imply that charter schools were a bad thing. It did not say that the schools should not open. But despite the care that the NAACP took to not excoriate charter schools, it still took the heat.
The debate over charter schools versus public schools is too volatile, contentious and frustrating not to stir passion. That’s been the case since the first charter school opened nearly two decades ago in Minneapolis. Charter schools were hailed in those days by educational innovators, conservatives, school-choice advocates and a coterie of millionaire and billionaire philanthropists and celebrities as the panacea for miserably failing inner-city schools.
Charter schools, the boosters claimed, would bring down the astronomically high dropout rates of black and Latino students, raise test scores and achievement levels, instill academic discipline and motivate and inspire parents to get more involved with their children’s education. The ultimate payoff would be admission to college for tens of thousands of students who would otherwise not have a prayer of getting a higher education.
During the next decade, a handful of high-achieving charter schools were paraded before the nation as proof that they could offer a viable alternative to public education and therefore that they deserved to be bankrolled with taxpayer dollars, touted by government officials and given a pass from teacher unions.
The troubling realities — that charter schools drained millions from public schools already starved for funds and resources; siphoned off quality teachers and administrators from the public system; cherry-picked the best students to inflate their success stories while leaving the overwhelming majority of underperforming students out in the cold; and offered few if any job benefits and protections — were brushed aside as ploys by teachers unions to protect their bargaining power and influence and keep lousy teachers on the job.
As the protests against the NAACP showed, school-choice conservatives aren’t the only ones pushing for charters. Legions of poor and working-class black and Latino parents have also demanded that their children have the same right to a quality education as middle-class whites, and if it takes a charter school with public money and government backing to achieve that goal, they’re willing to fight.
These parents’ burning desire for good-quality schools is understandable and must be supported. And the charter schools that deliver on the promise — meaning those that demonstrate high levels of student achievement without cherry-picking only the best and the brightest and offer decent wages, benefits and job protections for teachers and administrators — should be applauded.
But that doesn’t negate the fact that countless numbers of charter schools that have cropped up in recent years on the public dime have been miserable failures.
Several studies have shown that test scores and achievement levels of charter students aren’t much higher than those of students in public schools. Many charters are staffed by woefully unprepared and incompetent teachers and run by clueless administrators. These failed schools have dashed the hopes of tens of thousands of black and Latino parents who have looked to charters to be the miracle cure for their children’s miserable underachievement.
Charter supporters have attacked these studies as limited in scope and biased, but the studies have been fairly broad based and their authors have had no ties to teachers unions. The NAACP, in defending its decision to file suit, did not point to these studies to make a case against charter schools.
Jealous, in fact, insisted that charter schools do have a place in the educational arena for minority students. His point was that the elevation of charters should not come at the expense of public schools. No matter how well charters perform, the bitter reality is that public schools will always be the first and only choice for the vast majority of black and Latino students.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally syndicated columnist.