Feds Spar With NAACP Over Criticism of Charter Schools

The civil rights group blames the schools for many ills, including resegregation of classrooms.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Aug 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

In Cincinnati last week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for a national moratorium on charter schools, declaring their proliferation in poor, urban neighborhoods the educational equivalent of “predatory lending practices” responsible for issues ranging from unequal discipline to school resegregation.

Education Secretary John King Jr. pushed back on the NAACP’s declaration in Washington on Thursday, insisting there shouldn’t be “artificial barriers” to the growth of quality, taxpayer-funded, locally controlled schools that are “drivers of opportunity for kids.”

There are “places around the country that you will find charters that are closing the achievement gap, charters that are sending all of their students on to college when the local neighborhood school is sending hardly any students on to college,” King told reporters at the annual National Association of Black Journalists–National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention, just hours after the NAACP approved its resolution in Baltimore.

Still, “there are charters that are not good, and states need to act to improve those schools or close those schools,” King said in a one-on-one interview with journalist Maria Hinojosa. “So our role at the federal level is to both encourage the creation of schools that are good and also encourage charter operators to take their responsibility to act” when schools come up short.

The one-day, long-distance debate between King, the top education official in the country, and the NAACP, arguably the nation’s most august civil rights organization, mirrors the national controversy around charter schools.

As cash-strapped states and school districts struggle to adequately fund public schools, particularly in urban areas, the appetite for charters has grown among policy makers and education reformers (and like-minded conservative politicians).

Supporters point to charters as a way for communities, parents, and educators to work together, creating a coherent, tailored plan to teach kids based on where they live and what they need. They argue that charters offer parents in struggling neighborhoods a choice, increasing competition for failing traditional public schools.

Opponents, however, say the charter school system sacrifices accountability—and the fight between affluent and poor districts for equitable school funding—on the altar of local control. With less accountability, they say, those schools have a reputation of shortchanging students, mismanaging publicly funded budgets, and overworking teachers, with little government oversight.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of charter schools nationwide has more than tripled since 2000, from 1.7 percent to 6.2 percent, with the total number of public charter schools increasing from 1,500 to 6,100. They also got bigger over the same time. The number of schools that have between 500 and 1,000 students doubled, from 11 percent to 22 percent.

A series of studies has revealed that, propelled by housing trends and income inequality, an eyebrow-raising number of charter schools and public schools are more likely to be separate and unequal. Schools and districts that are predominantly black or Latino are less likely to have quality facilities or resources compared with schools in white areas.

Meanwhile, charter schools in Washington, D.C., and Chicago have had management headaches. Statistics show charter schools expel students at a higher rate than traditional schools do, and a pending lawsuit in Delaware alleges charter schools foment racial segregation. A joint report by two organizations that support traditional schools found waste, fraud, and abuse in systems nationwide.

In addition to comparing charter schools with payday and subprime lenders that prey on low-income communities, the NAACP in its statement noted that the schools’ independent boards are, for the most part, appointed rather than elected, removing a key layer of accountability to the public. The organization also argued that many charters unfairly apply harsh disciplinary measures that harm students of color the most; studies indicate that charters expel black and Latino students at a higher rate than traditional public schools do.

“Weak oversight of charter schools puts students and communities at risk of harm, public funds at risk of being wasted and further erodes local control of public education,” according to the resolution.

But at the NABJ-NAHJ conference, King said at the top of his agenda are ensuring that all kids get access to quality education and “lifting up” the teaching profession. Charters, he said, must be included in the equation, enforcement at the local level has to be a priority, and failing charter schools need to be held accountable.

“We should not have artificial barriers to the growth of charters that are good,” he told Hinojosa. At the federal level, he said, “our position has always been that charters should be a part of the public school landscape and can be a driver of opportunity for kids.”