74 Interview: Roland Martin’s Plans to Spread Quality Charters to Smaller Cities Post-NAACP

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The NAACP made headlines last weekend when its national board officially ratified a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools. Leading up to the vote, more than 160 black education leaders asked the NAACP board to reconsider its position, and several major newspaper editorial boards argued against the charter freeze.

Adding to the conversation was Roland Martin, who recently hosted a panel discussion at Howard University in Washington, D.C., with black education leaders holding diverse perspectives on whether charter schools and vouchers ultimately hurt or help kids of color. Martin posed a provocative question to the panelists: Is school choice the black choice? It is for Martin, but the discussion revealed the decades-long chasm in the black community over the issue.

The cable news host and commentator isn’t waiting until there is consensus in the black community over choice to work on bringing more charter school options to families of color. In an interview with The 74 after his panel and before the NAACP board actually met in Cincinnati, Martin talked about his new plan to develop and assist aspiring black charter leaders in cities across the country. The conversation has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

The 74: What do you make of that decision from the NAACP to forward a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools, and what will the outcome be?

Martin: It’s very simple. The NAACP has long been opposed to charter schools. When I had my TV One Sunday show called Washington Watch, the first two times I invited (former NAACP president) Ben Jealous to the show, he would often say, “Man, don’t tell me we’re gonna talk about those damn charter schools. I know you believe in those.” You bet I do. If I want to talk about them I will. So I get it. I understand the relationship that the NAACP has with teachers unions … On this one, I believe the NAACP is wrong. I believe that the NAACP is dead wrong. I believe that you can fight for high-quality charter schools without actually having a moratorium. I believe that. I do not believe, even if they pass it, it is going to have an impact on the charter school movement … I believe you are going to continue to see growth. When you have thousands of parents who are pushing and fighting for their children to be in these schools [and putting their names on] the waiting lists, [you realize] black folks have spoken. [The NAACP] can pass all the resolutions [it wants], but black people have spoken. And we did polling [on this issue]. Numbers do not lie. More than 70 percent, in the poll that we commissioned for TV One and rolandsmartin.com … not only support charter schools but support vouchers. What black parents want is simply what works for their child. Period. So I’m not worried about it all. In fact, I believe that the resolution is going to have the opposite effect. Because I believe what it is going to do is further motivate black parents to want to be able to have [educational] choices when it comes to their children.

(The 74: Rice — NAACP’s Anti-Charter Vote Was Disheartening — but What Happened on the Streets of Cincinnati Wasn’t)

I want to chat about the panel you had on the question of “Is school choice the black choice?” Why did you decide to get people on both sides of the aisle in one room together?

Here’s the deal. I am absolutely a believer in school choice. Obviously my initiative is called School Choice Is the Black Choice. I wanted to reverse that by asking “Is school choice the black choice?” because I felt we needed to have the discussion, where you put both sides together and it was a black discussion. Part of my problem is, you got the advocates, you got those people who are for it, [and] those people who are against. My deal is, the audience needs to hear both of them combating one another … It’s about putting them in the room together. [We did it] at Howard University, where they have the only charter school out of any HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities]. I thought for the audience it was a critical conversation. So the idea wasn’t, “Oh, we’re gonna come away with kumbaya. Or we’re gonna have all these solutions.” No. It was for people to say, “OK, you’ve heard a lot about charter schools. You heard a lot about school choice. There are critics and supporters.” Let’s actually start this thing by being able to comunicate with black folks who are in a significant position about this deal. The next phase is being able to drive this narrative issue across the country among African Americans. I absolutely believe in the idea of advancing high-quality charter schools. And that’s the key, being able to mobilize, organize. Here’s the deal. People who are in the movement make an assumption … that people are fully aware of all of these issues. They make the assumption that people understand all the ins-and-outs and they don’t. All black parents know and want is what is best for my kid. I think what we have to do is inform them first, provide them with the information. And then we begin to mobilize and organize them to be able to effect change. That to me has to be the strategy.

Are you planning to take this on the road?

The way this was structured, it’s not what I plan on taking on the road. What I plan on taking on the road is actually the voices [of people] who are believers in this. What we want to be able to do is bring folks together, educate them, enlighten them on the issues, then work with them in these local markets to be able to form organizing committees [so they can] begin [the] process of going about the formulation and the creation of charter schools or networks. So I plan on taking this thing to my fraternity. We got a new president, who is a university president. Our existing general president was very supportive of me having an “Is School Choice the Black Choice?” discussion at our national convention. But now I want to go to the next level. Now I want Alpha Phi Alpha to open an Alpha academy. I want us to do that. My goal is to convince the fraternity and our chapters to launch 50 charter schools across America over the next five years.

My idea for School Choice Is the Black Choice is to go to what I call second-tier markets. I want to go to places like Little Rock, Ark. I want to go to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I want to go to Birmingham, Montgomery or Selma. That’s the perfect example. I believe the ed reform movement has made a critical mistake in essentially abandoning Alabama. I talked to many people in the movement, and you have donors who decided to pull resources up from out of Alabama. I believe that is the most ridiculous thing in the world, because the ed reform movement [worked] quite diligently to get a charter school [law] in Alabama. This is the wrong time to pull out of a state. You need to be able to stay in the state, field and cultivate relationships and be able to create however many charters from the ground up.

The one thing that I believe that we have done as a movement is, we have allowed people to create schools that from the beginning will fail. We should be in the business of nurturing and in the business of targeting and in the business of developing [charter school leaders]. We need to be working with them side by side, showing them proper financial controls, proper ethical decisions [and how to hire] the right staff … We are going to bring our speakers, bring our experts [into these cities], mobilize those individuals and then help them through the process of [developing] a sound charter plan. I have an advance team that I will send in, who will go into those markets ahead of that. It’s not going to be an event [where] you go into a city [and say] “OK, that was great. It was wonderful.” You get the local media and leave. No. We’re gonna stay in contact with them. We’re gonna assist with training and development, because that’s key for me. You can’t just talk about high-performing charters. You literally have to create a high-performing charter from the ground up. I want to be able to hook those individuals up with other individuals who are highly successful in this movement who have done it, so they can offer them advice and counsel. To me that’s how you are able to grow better charter schools and then achieve the results that you want.

We’re obviously going to have a media component to this. We’re gonna have a strong digital strategy, because we want to be able to drive the messaging. So you’re talking about, as a part of this deal, [we] also are looking at podcasting. You are looking at utilizing web chats, whether it’s Google hangouts or others. We’re also looking at developing other material, including a book, School Choice Is the Black Choice. And also, as we go through this in our first year of going to these various places, we’ll also be looking at doing a documentary as well. All of this will be part of our initiative, School Choice Is the Black Choice. The town hall was the first part of this.

It has been said that black charter operators face more difficult obstacles in starting them and keeping them open. Do you think there is a lopsided racial makeup among leaders in the charter movement?

I am an outsider when it comes to the school choice movement. I am someone who looks at this movement in a different way. Although I serve on the board of directors of StudentsFirst, which has now merged with 50CAN … I am still an outsider. I’ve said this before. One of the fundamental problems with the school choice/ed reform movement is it is too white in terms of its leadership. You cannot have the majority of the schoolchildren in public schools be black and brown and then you have leadership in this movement that is nearly all white. You simply cannot walk into communities and say, “We’re here to save you,” and folks are not invested. What I mean by invested is not [education reform leaders] saying, “Oh well, you get to show up here at this time.” … The movement has to take a serious look at this issue. I have walked into rooms, and I’m looking around and I’m saying, “How are we are talking about saving children, when the majority of them are black and brown and I’m not looking at black and brown folks in the room?” That’s real. This is critically important … Charter schools are in their 25th year, and you are talking about how do you move forward. You have to really deal with … the hard issues. The charter school movement has to deal with the reality of discipline and how it has a negative effect on black and brown children. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that it’s not a problem. For the critics, that is something to latch onto … I have said this politically about black folks in the Democratic Party — that black people cannot be political sharecroppers — and I know some people [are going to say] “Oh, my goodness” at the power of the statement. African Americans and Latinos cannot be ed reform sharecroppers, in that they want folks to do the work but they don’t want them to reap the rewards. We have to learn how to fully engage black charter school operators and founders and parents and stakeholders. What I am going to do with School Choice Is the Black Choice, I am not walking in telling somebody, “I am here to save you.” I am saying, “We are here to assist you in what you want to create and what your initiative is and being able to provide our expertise and to make more happen.” That to me is what is vital. And that is why I believe we get a lot of criticism — because I believe this movement is tone-deaf.

When do you plan to get started?

We have already started. We had a town hall. We are focused on promoting that over the next two weeks. I … will be sitting down with Bishop T.D. Jakes. He and I have talked over the last several months about bringing this initiative to his pastors conference, where there are some 10,000 pastors that attend. We are identifying the first four to six cities that we want to target in year one.

One thing that Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s senior vice president for advocacy and policy, said to me after the panel is that he thinks people are scapegoating the teachers union. Has the education reform movement targeted unions beyond what’s necessary?

I’ll answer it this way. I was in a meeting. This is probably my first StudentsFirst board meeting, three or four years ago. The next day they had a meeting with some of the funders. So Michelle Rhee asked me, after a certain period of time, if I want to share my perspective. This is what I said to them. I said, “You make a mistake when you constantly attack teachers. What you don’t understand is that teaching was a gateway to the middle class for black people. So if you demonize teachers, what you don’t understand is, you’re demonizing somebody’s mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, so you are not going to win that conversation.” So later I moderated a panel … [American Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten was on it, Rev. Jackson and others. I said, “I don’t like sorry teachers.” [A] guy jumps up in the audience [and says], “There are no sorry teachers.” I said, “You are out of your mind. There are sorry people in every industry.” I said, “I don’t like sorry teachers or principals or administrators or school boards … and I don’t like sorry parents.” … The reality is, whether we want to own up to it or not, there are people who do not want to see charter school growth for their own personal interests. It could be about contracts. It could be about dues. It could be about curriculum. It could be about whatever. We also have to be honest that there are individuals who are in the ed reform movement who have ulterior motives when it comes to public education. And so if we are unwilling to admit that, we can’t move forward. For me, my conversations are not about contracts. They are not about dues. They are not about stripping away the power of unions. My focus is extremely simple, and that is what is in the best interests for our children. When you force that to be the primary issue, then you keep the egos in check and you make it about children. That has to be the focus.

Why do you think, while polls show overwhelming support among black communities for school choice, there doesn’t appear to be overwhelming political mobilization in those communities?

The operative word you just used is political. That’s the problem — if you turn this into a political discussion. Let me just use Chicago as the example. The school choice movement has played Chicago completely wrong. I spent six years there. If the discussion [is] about buildings, and then you have teachers driving a narrative, and then it’s about contracts, you are not going to win that question. But if you go into a community, and you look the parents in the eye and say, “Is this school failing your child?” the answer is yes or no. If they say yes, and then you say we have an option that will actually make it better, now here is the challenge: Is that a high-performing charter school? Success will always win. If it’s a high-performing charter school, that parent will say …, “This school over here is working for my child.” See, this goes to again how I started off. The movement has to be so vigilant, not about the charter school concept but about being high-performing. When you do not, you leave an opening up for your opposition. If I could hit you on discipline, if I could hit you on failure, if I could hit you on high turnover, I don’t even need to listen to you. What I have done is, I have poked so many holes that you’re bleeding. The movement has to be willing to say, “Shut this down,” if it is not working. That’s the difference. I believe 100 percent that you can go into a Chicago and you can mobilize parents. You can organize parents. It has to be a successful school. You create a successful school that leads to another that leads to another. I can guarantee you there is going to be a response from those parents and no critic will be able to deny success.

Let’s say Hillary Clinton gets elected. Do you think that kind of mobilization in urban cities is doable in the next 10 or five years?

Forget [whether it’s] doable in the next 10 years …This has nothing to do with the presidential election. This is local. I have said this for years, and I believe it 100 percent: You can’t have a strong America without strong states, strong states without strong cities, strong cities without quality strong neighborhoods. Strong neighborhoods require strong blocks. Strong blocks require strong streets. Strong streets require strong houses, which means that you only need one person in one house who says enough is enough and this is what we are about to do. That’s how it starts … It does not matter who is president of the United States when it comes to what I am talking about. If you walk into a city and you mobilize and organize 1,000 African Americans — parents, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, preachers, you name it — and these people say, “We care about the education of our children, and we want to take advantage of a law that creates high-quality new charters,” and then you build it. Then you are successful, then people are going to say, “Do another, do another one, do another one.” It can happen. What I am describing won’t take a decade. What I am describing literally … can be done in months. But you have to start. And what we as a movement have to do is say to hell with a story in The Washington Post or The New York Times or at Politico or trying to sit here [and] convince this politician. Every politician has to respond to the movement. They respond to people. That’s how it works all across the country.

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