Let's All Unite Behind the NAACP's Call for a Charter School Moratorium

The good news is that the NAACP is calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools. The bad news is that the call is not universally seen for what it is - a balanced effort to deescalate the education civil war which is disproportionately hurting poor children of color.

In a rational and humane era of school improvement, there wouldn't be complete agreement on the NAACP position, but advocates for choice would recognize the need to slow the growth of charters. They might be offering substitute wording for the resolution, and working with representatives of traditional public schools, teachers, and unions to craft an agreement on ways to minimize the inherent harm done by charters, while building on the good that some charters have provided.

The NAACP voted for the following:

We are calling for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter schools at least until such time as:

(1) Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools
(2) Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system
(3) Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
(4) Cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

Non-educators might be perplexed about the anger that this resolution generated. As Mercedes Schneider notes, the Business Insider compares the "charter school-CMO relationship to the subprime mortgage crisis 'bubble.'" Moreover, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) "found that 22 of the 33 charter schools in our review had 36 examples of internal control weaknesses related to the charter schools' relationships with their CMOs (concerning conflicts of interest, related-party transactions, and insufficient segregation of duties)." Certainly, charter supporters would support interventions into any other sector of the economy which produced such risks.

I used to be confused by the anger of reformers who were so convinced in the righteousness of their cause that they treated their opponents as enemies to be destroyed. My union and I conscientiously supported a bipartisan compromise in Oklahoma City which endorsed charters. We all should share the blame for the resulting policy which produced some great low-poverty charters and a few good higher-poverty charters, but which also produced a disastrous over-supply of charters. If we all did so, the NAACP resolution could provide a format for disengaging from the civil war which pits civil rights activists against civil rights activists.

I must emphasize that our district's teachers and unions compromised with Democrats who supported choice, as well as with Republicans. A white liberal like me wouldn't even think about proposing an anti-charter litmus test on black allies; too many black families face the choice between deciding what's best for their own children versus what they understand is better for the entire community. Too many black families have to see charters as their own children's escape hatch from failing schools, and they know that their refusal to accept an offer by a lower-poverty school for their children to learn in a more privileged classroom would not change the system. It is not for me to judge parents who make these decisions based on their own kids' welfare, knowing that they can't keep other children from being placed at an even greater disadvantage.

Having always embraced the Big Tent approach to school improvement, I'm sincerely disappointed that charter advocates continue to demonize educators and patrons who see the education world differently than they do. Of course, I could be equally livid about the damage done by choice to my inner city students, and equally uncompromising in opposition to charters. After all, it was the combination of choice with test scores being used as the ammunition in the assault by charters on traditional public schools that turned my 2/3rds low-income high school into a 100% low-income school that ranked at the bottom of the state.

At first, charters were no more damaging to my (then) run-of-the-mill inner ring suburban school than magnet schools and suburban competition. But as market-driven, competition-driven reform morphed into the scorched-earth campaign known as corporate school reform, a tipping point was crossed. The proliferation of charters left behind schools like mine, with such concentrations of children from generational poverty who had survived such extreme trauma, that it would be virtually impossible to turn them around without investments that would be far beyond anything that is possible.

I would have hoped that charter supporters would have tried to meet traditional public schools halfway. True believers in charters have ramped up the fight against teachers and unions to the point, however, where improving the educations of children can't be seen as their priority (at least in the short term.) Job #1 with the charter agenda is kneecapping their opponents. Blow up urban school systems, unions, and traditional teacher education programs, they believe, and someday "disruptive innovation" will make schools better. Although high stakes testing and charters have failed spectacularly in terms of turning around high-poverty schools that serve entire neighborhoods, if they cripple local school boards and the political power of teachers, then "the Market" can somehow become the civil rights hero of the 21st century.

I would have also hoped that charter supporters would have seen the NAACP resolution as an opportunity to slow down, fix mistakes, and improve existing schools. In my experience, most pro-charter reformers know that high stakes testing has spun out of control. Many or most understand that it is the poorest children of color who are most likely to be robbed of a quality education and subjected to test-to-the-test malpractice. The problem for charter advocates is that test scores is their metric for showing that they increased student "outcomes" more than their opponents in neighborhood schools. As long as primitive bubble-in metrics are the ammunition that they feel they must use in their no-holds-barred fight against traditional public schools, they are afraid to scrap the primitive test-driven accountability system despite the harm it does to children in charters and neighborhood schools.

The same logic applies to the way that charters feed the school to prison pipeline. To defeat their traditional public school enemies in the battle for higher test scores, many adopt disciplinary codes that go far beyond common decency. This is their new method of creaming the easiest-to-educate students, forcing neighborhood schools to deal with higher concentrations of high-challenge students. As already overburdened neighborhood schools face a critical mass of children who bring more extreme problems with them to school, traditional public schools are often forced to suspend excessive numbers of kids or risk having their classes spin out of control. This, of course, drives more of the top students out of neighborhood schools, creating even more social and economic segregation.

So, I would have hoped that charter supporters would have kept an open mind about the moratorium. They could have seen it as an opportunity to seek better solutions than the stress of testing to fight the stress of poverty. Charter supporters should have seen the NAACP resolution as an opportunity to dial down the out-of-control competition with traditional public schools. If they weren't under constant pressure to post higher scores than their opponents, existing charters would be free to experiment with more constructive and sustainable approaches to discipline. If they weren't under such pressure to show better quantitative outcomes by pushing out lower performing students, they wouldn't feel obligated to increase the stress of segregation as a supposed tool for defeating the educational legacy of the stress of segregation.

The sad truth is that too many sincere charter supporters seem preoccupied with kicking down the education barn that they have long derided as "the status quo." They may have no idea how to rebuild the barn but now they seem to believe their own public relations spin. If corporate reformers stick to what they know best - the edu-politics of destruction, then they believe that someday technocrats will figure out a way to improve high-poverty schools. It is such a shame that they won't listen to the NAACP, take a deep breath, remember why they got into school reform in the first place, and agree that school improvement must be a team effort.