It just so happened that I was at the high school fair in Philadelphia when it came over my Twitter feed that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had ratified a
proposed resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools. There I was, with 17,000 families (a majority of them Black) looking for great school options, while the nation’s “oldest and largest” civil rights organization was calling for an end to one of the key levers for creating such options. The juxtaposition made me feel physically sick, and instantly full of anger. It wasn’t the content of the announcement that got me. For months I have been reading about and discussing the lame arguments that the NAACP is making to explain the resolution. Towards the end of its
press release announcing the decision, the NAACP describes itself as the “oldest and largest nonpartisan civil rights organization.” What shook me was seeing them use that legacy to block progress for a generation of African-American students. I have a deep respect for Black institutions like the NAACP. I understand how much has been sacrificed to truly advance the state of Black people in our country. I know these organizations have carried forward that cause admirably. And that is why the whole thing upsets me so deeply. The day was still young when I heard the unfortunate news, but by that point I had already talked to dozens of families at the high school fair about what they were seeking. Every one of them had given me some version of the same answer: “an alternative to my neighborhood high school.”
Before School Choice Was a Hot Topic
The fair had already made me deeply emotional. Every time I do one of these fairs (and I’ve done several now in several cities), I am reminded of my own high school search process. I was a Chicago kid in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of the city. My family was low-income, but my grades were good. This was before “school choice” was a hot topic, but in my neighborhood, school choice was already hot. Back then, there were a few “Options for Knowledge,” some magnet schools and a small number of selective enrollment high schools. But I went with a group of kids from my middle school to an options fair at McCormick Place, understanding that landing a spot in one of those “other” schools was the difference between hope and hopelessness. It was a premonition of “The Hunger Games.” Only a scant few champions survive:
May the odds be ever in your favor. That was back when I was in eighth grade. And the problem of underperforming public schools and schools that fail Black children has been around much longer than that. It’s hard to think about new ways of doing things when you’ve done it the same way for so long. Just like the NAACP, the problem is “old.” The kids in my eighth-grade graduating class were all created equal under God. We didn’t all have exactly the same academic scores, but we all had great potential. And even for those of us at the “top” of the class, there were not enough spots in the few elite schools in the city. Even with a number of high-quality charter options, the eighth-graders I talked with in Philadelphia were up against the same reality.
The NAACP Has Joined the Ranks of Blocking Families From School Choice
You see Philly, like Chicago, is one of those cities with a persistent “achievement gap” between poor Black children and middle-income White children inside of the same school district. Both of these cities have charter schools that are showing tremendous promise when it comes to closing this gap. And in both of these cities, the charters have to fight year after year to keep their doors open, and for the right to serve more students. Chicago and Philly, like so many other cities in America, have large, established institutions such as unions and district bureaucracies that prioritize their own existence above the lives and success of children from poor and working class families. In these cities, the entrenched powers use their considerable resources of people, money and influence to make it hard for educational entrepreneurs to bring needed energy and innovation to the education sector. By calling for a moratorium on all charter schools, the NAACP has officially joined the ranks of these old, large institutions willing to prioritize the organizing model of school above the educational outcomes the school produces. Just because something is old and large doesn’t make it right. If the NAACP can’t see what charters are doing all over this country to uplift Black communities, then maybe we need some “new, small” organizations to come online and speak up for the majority of Black Americans who want what I wanted when I was in eighth grade, and what the families at the Philadelphia High School Fair wanted…an alternative.
An original version of this post appeared on Chicago Unheard.
Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate.