The national board of the NAACP is gathering in Cincinnati this weekend to vote on — among other things — a resolution calling for a national moratorium on charter schools. Little has been said publicly about what such a moratorium would entail or what sparked the original resolution, which came from the organization’s California/Hawaii chapter.
In the months since, however, the proposal has reignited a decades-long debate among black education advocates about the merits of charter schools for kids of color. More than 160 black education leaders have asked the NAACP board to reconsider its position, and over the past few days, several national editorial boards, including those of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, have come out against the resolution.
Last week, Hilary Shelton — the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau and the group’s senior vice president for advocacy and policy — talked with The 74 about the state of American public education, his organization’s push for equality and just how a charter school moratorium would work. The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
The 74: Is the charter school moratorium a done deal?
Shelton: The way our process works, it’s the same way every year. Just to give you some background: Any member in the NAACP in good standing — right now we have a little over 500,000 card-carrying members — can submit a resolution to be considered by the full body of delegates. It goes to the resolutions committee, where it is prepared to go before everyone else; 2,200 delegates are assembled at our national convention every year, and they come from every state in the country.
It goes to the floor before the registered delegates. They debate. They negotiate. They talk about the issues and whatnot. It looks very much like a political-party convention. When it’s all over and done, each one of those 2,200 delegates has as much power as each of the others. And they vote for the policy.
This July, that policy was voted on at our national convention. It came from our units in Hawaii and California. That was a unit in good standing. It was then considered by everyone I just described, and now goes to national board of directors for ratification. We have a 64-member national board. Those board members also come from every state in the country. We have seven seats that are set aside and guaranteed to be held by youth. Where it is in the process now: Those 2,200 delegates voted on this resolution. That’s been done. Most resolutions go before the national board of directors for ratification at our meeting that will be held in Cincinnati this month.
Do the board members normally approve resolutions?
Normally they do. The reason they do is because it is such an arduous process. It went from one individual, through consideration by an entire local unit, and then moved forward to our resolutions committee. [Sometimes separate resolutions are combined.] One of the reasons we do that is because sometimes you will get the same resolution from a dozen places. Hurricane Katrina is a good example. Police shootings are a good example. They just merge them together to make sure all the principles are included and we’re not considering the same resolution over and over again during that process. It’s voted upon then at the convention. All 2,200 delegates. It then goes forward to our national board of directors. They’ll then vote to ratify it or not. Normally after that kind of process it’s viewed as the will of the membership, the vote of the people who have come from all over the country.
Then ratification quickly becomes implementation. Implementation is when the various units of the NAACP are utilized to put it into place.
Do the local chapters have to support it? Can they disagree?
The units are part of making the decision. Once that decision is made — and quite frankly, this was voted on unanimously at the convention, by the way …
By all 2,200?
All 2,200. If you read it, you see it makes sense. Again, a moratorium is not an elimination. It’s setting a standard. It’s saying we want to meet this standard. So all it’s saying is, if you have a charter school that is working, it’s meeting the standard and the teachers are in the position to be part of providing a high-quality education, we support you. If you are in a charter school that isn’t meeting those minimum standards, then we’ve got to do something about you.
The way I read the resolution, it was “Stop growth,” not just “Stop growth of bad charters.”
It says “freeze” now … The issue with the freeze is, we want to take time to look at all of these. It doesn’t mean that those who are doing a good job have to stop. They are still working. They are still moving. They are still educating children. It doesn’t stop. It just says, before we can consider any new charter schools, that’s what a moratorium is — any new charter schools. Which includes the cap in Massachusetts. They want to be able to include new charter schools at this point. Our position is: We’ve got a big problem that we need to work out … let’s fix the problem. That’s what we want to see happen there — and everywhere else.
Do the bylaws prevent a local chapter from taking contrary positions?
They do. Once that national standard is set, it’s the standard for the NAACP. They cannot oppose it.
How do you envision a moratorium working?
The moratorium is to address the issues of why it is that we are getting so many new charter schools and they’re failing almost immediately and creating all kinds of problems for communities as well as local families. So what we’re seeing is a growth of charter schools that has a tendency over the last 15 years to vary from about 400 to nearly 700 new charter schools per year. That raises some major concerns about what kind of oversight we’re providing for those charter schools. Part of that concern is making sure that charter schools have more flexibility, to be able to conform to the real needs of communities, which are very helpful aspirations and goals. We end up allowing the elimination of some of the civil rights protections and other oversight, which are also important for any school to be effective — particularly those that are going to accept resources from local, state and federal governments. So we want to make sure all of that is in place as well. There has to be oversight. We have to make sure there is some standard for teachers.
What kind of oversight do you think there should be?
In every area, much like we have with our public schools now, there are enforcement mechanisms coming from their school board and their superintendent that actually make sure those schools are adhering to the high-quality standards that are set. Charter schools kind of set their own standards. Some of those standards are great. They’re high, they’re academic, and they end up being successful. Some of them are not. The ones that allow them to hire teachers that have not been truly educated. They don’t have even undergraduate degrees. They have not been certified in the subject area of which they are going to teach. And essentially, the minimum standard that is set for public schools doesn’t carry over in some cases to charter schools. We believe those minimum standards should work across the board, whether it’s a charter school, whether it’s a public school.
Particularly for teacher backgrounds?
Teacher backgrounds and even curriculums. What we want to see is everyone held to a high standard. At least, going in the door, let’s let our children know they have educators prepared to teach them. I had someone jump on me once — I mean that euphemistically. He said to me, “I got a charter school, and I’ve got some very budding, hardworking teachers; they don’t have degrees.” I said, “I appreciate that. Get them degrees so they can have that as well.”
Let’s make sure they are fully prepared to provide that assistance. Some charter schools, quite frankly, have some standards that do just that. But it’s not enough. It’s not standard. It’s not consistent. That’s why we want to call for a moratorium. A moratorium doesn’t mean tear down what’s there. All it means is, this growth is clearly unmanageable. Look across the country and see what’s going on — at the challenges in Detroit, New Orleans, Louisiana and even sometimes here in Washington, D.C. All of those issues need to be addressed as well.
“Moratorium” to me sounds like something temporary. How long do you think it should be?
One of the big challenges right now is the transition going on in the government. We are in the middle of a very heated presidential campaign, so we know what each candidate stands for. We don’t know who is going to win. We are nonpartisan, so we are just going to watch and wait until they do. That’s just another month.
When we get past that, we’ll see what direction [the country] goes in. We’re going to organize — one of the reasons the NAACP organizes at the ground level is that we actually push our members to go into those teacher meetings, those city council meetings, those education committee meetings, to make sure the issues we’re worried about are being addressed on a daily basis. We know that to make our community strong and our education system strong, that it’s not a spectator sport. It requires active engagement.
At the state level, most of the resources that flow into most communities are actually mitigated by the state. That means activism at the state level, whoever the governor is, whoever the director of education for the state is, also need to be addressed as well. We have to [become] actively involved to make sure the proper resources are getting to our communities, both economic resources as well as academic resources.
Would this moratorium be 10 years, 20 years, one year?
At this point, we have not set a deadline for the end of the moratorium. We have not set it. We have set criteria that need to be analyzed, assessed and addressed. We have not said, “This has to happen in two years.” We’re hoping that it happens sooner than that. We know it’s going to take a while to do it. So the fight is on, not just as we talk about time but as we talk about goals.
And what would the goals be?
The goals would be that children are given at least a high-quality education. We want to make sure we have appropriately sized classrooms for all schools. We focus on public schools. Private schools are just that. They are private schools. But if you’re getting resources from our local governments and our state governments and our federal government, we want to make sure that schools meet that standard wherever you are.
Look, I often talk to my mother. They grew up in Mississippi — a little community called Gore Springs. You probably have never heard of it. I wouldn’t have heard of it, if she hadn’t been my mother. What they had to do there — the state government, because of racism, wouldn’t give black communities the same level of resources they were giving white communities. How’s that for a surprise? They banded together and, beyond the little bit they got from the state government, they raised their own money and the local community. My father still tells me the story about how they raised money to get a school bus because again the state wasn’t going to pay for it. They would pick up all the kids and bring them down to the central schools so everybody could get their education. Now, both my parents, who are well into their 80s, they were both able to not only get good public educations, they went on to college. They got their education because of the commitment and the contributions and the hard work done by that community and, quite frankly, in those days, even the work done by the NAACP as well.
What would you say to black charter leaders, like Steve Perry, who say, “I’m doing so much good work I feel you are telling me to stop.”
We would never tell them to stop, but we would tell them to do it right. We would tell them to make sure that his teachers have that foundation, and then they can decide how to groom them beyond that to meet the culture of the school. That’s just fine. Let’s talk about these minimum standards. We would tell them to stop scapegoating unions. Some of the best research that we have ever seen on how our children, African-American children and other children, are doing, has been done with resources from teachers unions. That’s important. Teachers unions also do in-service training. I’m not sure what his in-service training program is. But something tells me one charter school is not going to have the resources of that level of commitment to provide that in-service training that you get from an AFT or an NEA. I would tell him to then focus on those issues. Pay his teachers a fair day’s wage for a hard day’s work.
A lot of the rhetoric in the response to the moratorium was, “Oh, the NAACP is in the union’s pocket.” They talk about money — what did you make of that, and are there areas where you disagree with the unions?
Primarily, I’ve heard that from those people who see somehow or another this as being an attack on charter schools. It’s not. It’s an attack on low-quality schools, period. The NAACP is not going to be shy about working to make sure that the schools that are developed for our children, that those schools have good high standards to educate our children and prepare them for the world they might want to be in charge of. We don’t care. As you know, 1954 is not the first time we sued school systems. We sued school systems all across the country. It was a landmark time because we were able to get through Brown v. Board of Education. We’ve sued many schools since then. We have demonstrated. We have worked with state legislators. We have held legislators accountable — and superintendents.
But are there areas with the union where you do disagree?
If a union came through and somehow said that they were going to allow different resources in different communities, we would have a problem with that.
But the unions aren’t really doing that.
They are not, which is why we haven’t had problem with the unions. We have talked to them about how they provide assessments of their teachers. Those are extremely important. They are important for us because it’s going to be reflected in the quality of education our children get. They are important for those making a living teaching as well. Our teachers are also role models. In classrooms every day, they are talking about their own experience: what got them to the point where they were able to go through the public school and learn what they learned in that process, get a degree in education and come back and actually teach, sometimes in the communities where they lived.
I am convinced of a couple of things. One is: 25 percent of all African-American college graduates work in the public sector. A good portion of those are school teachers, first responders, government workers and others. We want to make sure they are able to provide the services in those areas. And in this particular area, for this particular conversation, our teachers … sometimes our teachers try to actually move up the ladder within the administration. If they are too supportive of a teaching method that we know is going to be effective and successful, oftentimes they are pushed out. We’ve got to protect those teachers too.
Have you been surprised by the reaction to the moratorium? What have your conversations been like?
It depends on how it’s interpreted. Let me make sure people know the definition of moratorium, because I’m convinced most of those people who are most disgruntled by it didn’t look at the definition and didn’t read the resolution. The resolution goes on to talk about the various issues and standards that we want our schools to meet. In this case, the standards we want our charter schools to meet. There is nothing in that list of mandates that we haven’t already been working on for our local public schools. What we’re looking for is: Let the minimum standard be the school system you say isn’t working very well. Grow from there. Don’t use this as a tool to undercut even those minimum standards so you can maximize your profits. Believe me, there are two types of charter schools you have to talk about — not only the public charters. That’s what most of this conversation is about. You have to talk about the private charters as well.
The for-profits. Anytime you have the quality of education being tampered with by a focus on maximizing your profits, it is our children and our families that are going to suffer.