Gary Bledsoe can easily tick off the potential benefits of charter schools, from being able to experiment with new models of teaching to creating educational institutions especially designed to serve black students who have fallen through the cracks.
In fact, he has defended Alphonso Crutch Charter School in Houston in court for more than a decade.
But over the years, Bledsoe’s enthusiasm has been tempered with what he argues is the rise of for-profit charter models that don’t put students’ needs first, accompanied by a rise in discrimination by state authorizers against black-run charter schools. An NAACP national board member, he is leaning toward supporting a resolution calling for a halt on charter school growth when it comes before the storied civil rights organization in a much-watched vote next month.
“I have talked to a lot of folks who are pro–charter schools, and they have no problem with that position,” said Bledsoe, who is also the president of the Texas chapter of the NAACP.
That someone like Bledsoe could both be impressed with the idea that charter schools may give some black students a better education than traditional public schools but also worry about discriminatory regulation of the independently run schools and disinvestment in district schools is nothing new — even while the NAACP’s position on charters and the upcoming vote have sparked fresh debate among civil rights advocates.
Since the early 1990s, leaders in the black community have sparred over whether supporting charter schools will ultimately help kids of color or hurt them. Some say charter schools give some needy students stronger options and their families freedom of choice while creating a healthy competition that could prompt all schools to get better. But the NAACP, which made its name fighting for integrated schools, and others have argued that supporting charters undermines their long-held demand for a better and fairer public education for all kids.
As the growth of charter schools has exploded, the debate has become even more divisive. Local battles over how much space charters should take up in New York City and whether a cap limiting the number of charter schools in Massachusetts should be lifted continue to permeate the education policy conversation.
Nationally, the civil rights coalition cracks over the charter school issue as national black charter supporters such as President Barack Obama find themselves at odds with the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, which has taken an even stronger position against charters.
(The 74: In-Depth: Black Lives Matter’s Rashad Turner on Why He’s Quitting Over Charter School Attacks)
The NAACP is set to hold its national meeting in Cincinnati Oct. 13–15. The charter resolution is expected to be debated at some point over the course of those three days. The 74 reached out to several dozen of the group’s more than 60 board members to ask them where they stood. Only a handful were reached and would speak on the record.
“If you are there to fight for all children, especially those children of color who have been left out, then you have to fight for the public school system,” said Gloria Browne-Marshall, a civil rights attorney who worked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the 1990s.
“To do otherwise is to fight for an elite group. And that elite group has been at the core of [this] conflict.”
Ron Rice, senior director of government relations for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, argued that charter schools are part of public education with a different “delivery system.” Besides, he said, there is high demand from minority families for charter schools.
“The people you represent just have a different opinion,” Rice said of the NAACP’s position.
Historically, the NAACP has thrown many of its punches in the fight for educational equity in the court system. After 20-some years of advocating for the same public resources for black schools that existed in white schools, the civil rights group decided in the 1950s to shift its strategy to challenging segregation as unconstitutional.
In 1951, the NAACP filed a class action against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas, asking the court to overturn the school district’s segregation policy, arguing that segregation hurt black students. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools were indeed unconstitutional.
But it would be a decade before communities in the South truly started to desegregate their schools. Instead, many regions adopted “freedom of choice” programs that technically allowed black and white students to attend integrated schools but didn’t actually lead to desegregation, said Matthew Delmont, a professor of history at Arizona State University.
“It’s a way to avoid integration without saying you are actively supporting segregation,” Delmont said. “Before Brown v. Board, there is no reason to rally around that [freedom of choice] language.”
(The 74 Interview: Prof. Matt Delmont on How Northern Whites Used Busing to Derail School Integration)
One of those communities was New Kent County in eastern Virginia. While the small, rural region was not segregated residentially, blacks and whites attended separate schools despite the district’s choice plan. The NAACP challenged the program and others like it in court. In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while the system of choice was not inherently unconstitutional, it was insufficient because it did not live up to the desegregation mandate put forth by Brown v. Board of Education.
Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP and a board member, said he sees the current charter sector as an extension of the rise of private schools in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court case.
“We should not be giving our resources for what I consider to be a negligent expression of government’s responsibility to provide education,” Brown said. “We need to make public schools work.”
“America has refused to deal with this cancer of race.”
New choice, new test
In the 1990s, the NAACP faced a new kind of test over choice in education: Could an organization that staked out a position that “freedom of choice” is discriminatory and that “separate is not equal” support charter schools?
The answer was not clear at first — and arguably still isn’t. In June 1991, Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law. While the policy prompted criticism from the local teachers unions and the Minnesota School Boards Association, the St. Paul branch of the NAACP considered applying to run its own charter school for high school dropouts, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In 1994, black activists in Florida also disagreed over whether they should bring charter schools to their community. More than 20 years after a federal judge ordered Hillsborough County Public Schools to maintain a race ratio of 80 percent white to 20 percent black, the school system was still not fully integrated. That year two black activists tried to persuade the Hillsborough County School Board to allow black community members to start their own charter schools to serve black children, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
“The last 20 years have not worked. It’s time to try something new,” said retired teacher Rudolph Harris, one of the activists lobbying the board. Harris relished the idea of the black community having control of the education of black students.
But local NAACP education committee chairwoman Helen LaCount pushed back, arguing that the district should continue to commit itself to desegregation. Establishing black charter schools would only hurt their call for integration, LaCount told the newspaper.
“The idea of separatism or going back to the way things were, that’s something the black community is not going to support,” she said. “We can’t go backward. We need to be fighting for equity and equal opportunity.”
The NAACP would tackle that issue during its annual convention in 1997. A proposed resolution opposing vouchers and charter schools only passed after charter schools were struck from the text, according to The Baltimore Sun.
But the next year, the civil rights group did pass a resolution against charter schools.
“The NAACP unequivocally opposes the establishing and granting of charter schools which are not subject to the same accountability and standardization of qualifications/certification of teachers as public schools and which divert the already limited funds from public schools,” the resolution said. “The NAACP renews its commitment and its advocacy efforts to assure that every child gets a quality education.”
More resolutions against charter schools continued.
In 2010, the NAACP passed a resolution saying that it rejected “the emphasis” on charter schools. In 2014, the group passed another saying it opposed the “privatization of public schools.” The recent resolutions against charter schools continue to make an anti-separatism argument but also highlight what they see as the negative effect charter schools have had in the past 25 years.
In the proposed 2016 resolution, the NAACP delegates cited concerns that charter schools disproportionately use highly punitive or exclusionary discipline practices, exacerbate segregation and deprive district schools of resources. Research from CREDO at Stanford University has found that charter schools don’t perform better than traditional public schools in the aggregate but often outperform them in urban areas and for minority students. Studies show that charter schools do not harm test scores of students who remain in district schools but may have a negative impact on their finances.
Katherine Egland, a Mississippi resident and a member of the national board since 1998, argues that investing in charter schools ultimately hurts more than it helps.
“If you are taking money from public education and putting it into what is essentially a system that better educates a few, then there is nothing that changes about that,” she said.
“It was something that has had a negative impact on minority school students from the beginning.”