What do Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal and the NAACP’s charter school moratorium resolution have in common? Far more than you might think.
In A Modest Proposal, Swift suggests that poor children born to poor families — who were a tremendous financial burden on society and had little opportunity to become successful themselves — be rounded up and sold as food. He reckoned the children could be cooked many ways, that they would taste delicious, and that the sale price would more than cover the cost of actually rearing them.
Swift was a satirist; his disdain for the British crown and fierce loyalty to the Irish — his people — led him to write stinging and incisive commentary on the British Empire. Humor and absurdity have long played an important role in changing the political minds of the many.
Swift’s lesson in the face of cold imperialism is that an immodest proposal — indeed, an outrageous one — is no less so if it is offered clinically and in the flat, moderated tone of the oppressor. Indeed, the appearance of reason is often the finest window dressing for an unreasonable request.
Fast-forward to the present day, and a great deal of internet chatter would have you believe the NAACP’s adoption of a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools — a sellout of black children to teachers unions and other moneyed interests if there ever was one — is a thoughtfully considered statement of policy.
(Read: Bradford: Press Tuned In to the School Choice Split in the Black Community — and That’s a Good Thing)
Indeed, the resolution’s four demands are “modest” but for their intent to deprive hundreds of thousands of minority and low-income children of the nourishment a quality education provides — witness the tragically predictable outcome of the vote in Massachusetts, where a coalition that included the NAACP quashed a ballot measure to allow charter schools to grow by a paltry 12 a year.
Four demands with sinister intent
The range of requests in the resolution swings from dangerous to deluded — as does some of the commentary that seeks to support the resolution itself — but you don’t need to read further than the first two to know the NAACP is not serious about addressing or ameliorating its issues with charter schools in America.
Its primary call for sameness across accountability systems utterly misses the point of charter schools. Charters are accountable to authorizers and to the thousands of regulators who fill their seats, also known as their students. The authorization and choice model is different on purpose. There is nothing wrong with the difference. It is meant to be different, in fact.
The call to make charters accountable in the way districts (which operate largely by residential assignment, not choice, and are predominantly under the supervision of elected school boards) are is like asking an ostrich to fly. There is nothing wrong with an ostrich. It is a bird, but it runs. Asking it to fly defies the fundamental nature of the thing.
The second, a call for charter public schools to forgo financing they are entitled to, would only be sinister if it weren’t a straight-up smash-and-grab on the money-follows-the-child paradigm. Not only does it ignore the fact that charter schools are public schools and thus rightly entitled to the funding they receive (which in no place in America is equal to what district schools get), but it also undermines the power parents and families are given when they can reward or punish great or terrible schools — of any kind — through choice.
Additionally, a by-product of such a split system of school finance would likely be a cap on charter growth, as in Connecticut, where charters are funded out of a specific line item in the state budget. The NAACP is now, apparently, an organization of fiscal hawks asserting, “We will pay this much for your education, but not one cent more.” Who knew the members had this in them?
As sad as the resolution is, the “modest” questioning around why charter advocates, families and students oppose the proposal is actually more troubling. As with Swift’s tale, it is in the nature of the oppressor to believe all its requests are thoughtful and worthwhile. Only those seeking something better know that a request that limits the freedom of the human spirit, or that seeks to limit human potential, is never modest. And anyone who has ever had to live with such a request also knows they are never, ever, reasonable.