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Inside The NAACP’s Fight To Stop Betsy DeVos From Expanding Charter Schools

President Donald Trump may call education the “civil rights issue of our time,” but just weeks before he was elected, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization strongly rejected the very type of schools he loves to champion.

In October, the NAACP voted on a controversial resolution calling for a moratorium on the growth of charter schools, which exist in 43 states. Over six decades after the organization fought to eliminate school segregation through the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, leaders said charter schools were perpetuating the very same segregation they fought so hard to stop. Not only that, but charter schools also divert resources away from traditional public school systems.

Charter school activists opposed the move. So did some of the very people the NAACP seeks to serve, like the hundreds of thousands of black families that choose charter schools for their children every year.

The controversial stance threw the nation’s oldest civil rights organization into the spotlight during a time when they were fighting for relevancy. In the months since, a task force of a dozen NAACP leaders has traveled the country, listening to both charter school advocates and opponents, parents and teachers, about what steps the organization should take next.

Next month the NAACP will release a report detailing what the task force found. HuffPost, through conversations with several task force leaders, received a glimpse into what these findings might look like.

After spending time in seven cities, NAACP Task Force on Quality Education chair Alice Huffman says she is more convinced than ever that the call for a moratorium was the correct decision. The election of Trump, and his subsequent appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has given the issue specific urgency. DeVos, a notorious champion of school choice, would like to see more charter schools, and her department’s proposed budget has put funding behind them

“Nobody is convinced … after going all across the country, that the moratorium was wrong,” said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. “My mind wasn’t as made up as it is now.”

Tommaso Boddi via Getty Images
NAACP California State Conference President Alice Huffman attends the NAACP convention in 2011. 

Not all task force members were necessarily committed to the idea of a moratorium before setting out on their nationwide listening tour. What they heard in cities like Detroit and New Orleans convinced them to stick with it. Gloria Sweet-Love, a task force member, has a grandson currently attending a charter school, and she calls it “wonderful.” She highlights Tennessee’s charter school system as a national bright spot.

But she emerged from the travel with a critical conviction: “Charters won’t fix what’s wrong with public education,” said Sweet-Love, the president of the Tennessee NAACP state conference.

Sweet-Love is no stranger to the harms of educational inequity. As a child growing up in western Tennessee, she attended all-black schools, where “new” textbooks arrived only after the white students from a nearby school had used them for years and finally decided to get rid of them. In science class, they didn’t even have beakers to conduct experiments.   

Many decades after her high school graduation in 1965, schools in America are no longer legally segregated. But Sweet-Love still sees black children ― both in charters and outside them ― getting the short end of the educational stick. Charters, she says, often exacerbate many of these issues.

“We have seen charters that work well, but we still contend what we said in the beginning. All of them should be accountable and transparent, they ought to be able to help all children, including children with disabilities and children with discipline problems,” said Sweet-Love.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, were popularized during the 1990s. They were born out of the idea that operating outside the traditional public school system ― a system filled with powerful teachers unions and layers of thick bureaucratic red tape ― could allow them to act as labs of innovation that share ideas with the traditional system.

In reality, said Huffman, that’s not what happened.

“There’s no mechanism for feeding ideas back into public school. That experiment has failed and nobody even contends that it exists, so it’s a myth,” she said.

Charters won’t fix what’s wrong with public education. Gloria Sweet-Love, president of Tennessee NAACP state conference

But charter school leaders contend that restricting charter schools won’t fix what’s wrong with public education, and will only succeed in cutting off access to high-performing schools. These leaders, like Shavar Jeffries, also see themselves on the forefront of a civil rights issue. As a former civil rights attorney, Jeffries spent time working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and now heads the group Democrats for Education Reform.

Jeffries told HuffPost that he would like to see the NAACP pass a moratorium on all failing schools, regardless of the type.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing for us is the quality of the services being delivered. And if any particular provider is providing high quality services to our young people, particularly our most vulnerable, we will push any advocates of children to support that,” said Jeffries.

But NAACP leaders point to evidence showing that charter schools are more racially segregated than their traditional counterparts, and have higher suspension rates. NAACP critics say these schools cherry-pick the best students, leaving behind students with special needs, while draining resources from the traditional system. They complain charter schools are not subject to the same accountability or transparency measures as normal schools. And while most charter schools have nonprofit status, some are for-profit or virtual, designed to make money over providing enrichment.

On the flip side, studies show that these schools provide small but meaningful academic benefits, especially for disadvantaged students. Proponents cite surveys showing that African-American parents are strongly supportive of charter schools. They say these schools give low-income parents the luxury of choice, a comfort often reserved for affluent families. Many of the problems perpetuated by charter schools ― like racial segregation ― are also major failures of the traditional public school system.

Still, if you only listen to the words of the leaders from both camps, it can be difficult to distinguish between the goals of some groups that fight for charter schools and those that fight against them. Both employ civil rights rhetoric to further their aims. They both say they are singularly dedicated to lifting the prospects of low-income black and brown children who have suffered in white supremacist school systems.

But they starkly diverge on the means to achieve this end.

“Kids don’t have time to wait while adults argue,” said Ron Rice, senior director for government relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. If schools are working and they’re public, then we should be embracing them, and we should not be fighting about the details about the delivery system. It’s just that simple.”

Huffman told HuffPost she hopes to make the release of the task force’s report one of the centerpieces of the NAACP annual convention in late July. Then, she hopes to inspire a national campaign of actions against charter schools.

She says she plans on taking a page from the playbook of the Koch brothers, conservative billionaires who donate heavily to political causes. “We put some initiatives out across the country that everybody can work on,” said Huffman. “We’ll have people there for every state.”

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