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Op-Ed: A Moratorium On New Charter Schools Is A Step For Civil Rights

Charters have drained funding from district schools in cities like Newark, leading to separate and unequal systems

Lauren Wells
Lauren Wells

At the 107th National Convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) last Saturday the board of directors ratified a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion and increased oversight in the governance and practices of charter schools.

In the days leading up to the convention and the passing of the resolution, national media, pro-charter organizations and advocates, charter school leaders, and parents took to the airwaves condemning the resolution as “misguided,” uninformed, and out of touch. My twitter feed was ablaze with tweets and retweets about deciding for parents, the NAACP erecting barriers, proof that charters are getting results, and references to past civil rights leaders “rolling over in their graves.”

A little over a year ago, I called for a moratorium on charter school expansion in Newark in an opinion written while I was the chief education officer for Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. This appeal was based on many of the very same problems that the NAACP has put forward for the nation to investigate and remedy. In Newark from the 2013-2014 to the 2015-2016 school years, charter school enrollment increased 55 percent from 9,334 to 14,501 students. This rapid expansion of charter schools occurred in an increasingly constrained fiscal reality for the Newark Public Schools District (NPS).

A report released in November 2015 by the Education Law Center, a national leader in advocacy for fiscal equity, highlights both the overall financial environment of the district and the combined impacts of charter expansion and funding cuts on schools. For example, in 2015-2016 Gov. Chris Christie for the fifth year in a row refused to fully fund the state’s formula, causing NPS to lose $132 million in state aid.

At the same time, NPS charter school payments increased to $225 million, representing 27% of the NPS operating budget. This resulted in widespread cuts with schools and students losing resources like librarians, social workers, attendance counselors, teachers, and textbooks.

In New Jersey, the administration that promoted and oversaw both this underfunding and charter expansion is now proposing an even deeper cut in state aid, and Gov. Christie's "fairness formula" will further decimate NPS. But the charter sector attacking the NAACP for the moratorium is virtually silent about this.

There are those who will argue the money followed the 5,167 children who left NPS for charter schools, or that families voted with their feet. Unfortunately, these narratives do not account for the students that return to district schools mid-year unaccompanied by returning funds.

They also do not acknowledge that more poor, special education, and English language learners remain in district schools and require more resources to support their learning. The results in Newark? Two separate and unequal school systems operating side by side educating brothers, sisters, and cousins inequitably.

This is exactly what makes a moratorium on charter expansion necessary anywhere that charter growth is being advanced in a vacuum that does not consider the structural and financial impacts on the schools and students that remain part of districts.

This is exactly what gives the NAACP resolution fidelity to the mission it has always served, “eliminating severe racial inequities that continue to plague the education system.”

For over twenty years, the NAACP has called out efforts to privatize public education and to transfer governance to privately appointed boards and public dollars to quasi-public organizations. Their recent resolution is not an attack on Black parents or an attempt to erode individual liberties like choosing where one lives or sends their children to school.

Quite the contrary, the NAACP’s decision speaks to a commitment to ensuring the viability of our civil rights and our ability to enact them 100 years from now. It embodies a supreme understanding of the fact that civil rights have never been granted in the “free market” and that in the private sector the civil rights of black people and other people of color are endangered. The recent releases of “Birth of a Nation” and the Netflix prison documentary “13th” provide us with timely reminders of the realities of black bodies in private hands.

On the one hand, education reformers pitch their agenda to privatize public education as the new Civil Rights Movement. On the other, they fail to account for the long-term consequences of diverting control and public dollars to corporations, charter management organizations, and other private entities to the future of our civil rights.

Why a call for regulation of charter schools — transparency, standards, controls on the shifting of public funds to prevent harm to school districts and their students, and ceasing of zero-tolerance discipline practices — is divisive is really quite puzzling. The fact that charter school proponents also have a tendency to conveniently overlook the web of interests and big bucks being made by the special interest groups, hedge funds, corporations, and lobbyists pouring their time and resources into the rush to privatize makes the rancor against the resolution rather alarming.

I have not heard the NAACP demand all charter schools be shuttered immediately. In fact, it seems that the existence of charter schools in the national landscape has been accepted, even if challenges persist. The NAACP has called on us to once again confront the reality of separate and unequal schools. They have asked “How do we prevent separate and unequal school systems from existing side by side in our communities?”

That’s a question which seeks to bring black and brown communities back together to solve the educational problems that directly impact them and not further divide them. As much as the rhetoric of the education reform movement claims to want high quality education for all, there should be a long line forming to assess the impact of charter expansion on district schools and to strategize for solutions to lift all schools not just some.

Back on my twitter feed, the NAACP has been called a dinosaur and a relic. I couldn’t disagree more. The NAACP resolution for a charter moratorium stands at the heart of demands for justice and equity, challenging us to reverse the steady march backward to separate and unequal school systems that operate side by side in black and brown communities as well as to see our civil rights as a public good, not a private interest. Anything less is justice reserved for some of our children and not for all of them.

Lauren Wells is a professorial lecturer at the American University School of Education

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