Politics & Policy

About Charter Schools, the NAACP Is Simply Wrong

School choice works, and polls show that it’s broadly popular.

At its 2016 national convention, held in Cincinnati in July, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on privately managed charter schools. To judge from the amount of news coverage it has received, the resolution took many in the media by surprise.

Here we have arguably the nation’s most well-respected civil-rights organization slamming the national school-choice movement and pushing some strongly worded assertions: Charters “increase segregation,” for example, and use “disproportionately high” levels of “punitive and exclusionary discipline,” leading to “psychologically harmful environments.” Moreover, expansions of charter schools in “low-income communities . . . mirror predatory lending practices that led to the sub-prime mortgage disaster.” 

Charter operators, you see, are “targeting low-income areas and communities of color.”

The NAACP’s position and rhetoric is nothing new. The organization has officially opposed charter schools since 1998, back when the education-choice movement was still in short pants. The 2016 resolution essentially just reaffirms the organization’s 2014 resolution, “School Privatization Threat to Public Education.” So why all the hubbub now? Perhaps it’s because this is an election year, so the media are more attuned to strongly worded statements on contentious issues. Regardless of the reasons why, the organization’s position against charter schools is suddenly receiving a lot of attention.

Are the charges that the NAACP puts forward in its philippic on charter schools accurate? Manifestly, they are not.

Four different random controlled trials, conducted in Boston, Chicago, New York City, and nationally, show that urban charter schools give their students significant benefits. They close racial achievement gaps, for example, at a much higher rate than do traditional public schools. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that, compared with their peers in traditional public schools, black students in urban charter schools received the equivalent of 36 days in additional math instruction and 26 days in additional reading instruction.

New York State’s latest round of state assessments found that Big Apple charters are easily outpacing traditional public schools in math and English language arts (ELA). Black students in Gotham are more than twice as likely as their school-district peers to test “proficient” in math, and they scored 16.4 percentage points higher on ELA. Charters, with 92 percent of their student bodies made up of minority students, are now 38 percent of the top 50 schools in the city, according to Families for Excellent Schools.

It is hard to imagine that these charters would be creating “psychologically harmful environments” while at the same substantially outperforming traditional public schools. Children are not forced to attend charter schools; charters have to work to persuade parents to enroll their children . If parents find the environment at their children’s charter school not to their liking, the students can head back to the nirvana-like environs of their neighborhood public school.

Moreover, a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute finds that charters suspend students at lower rates than do their neighboring public schools — which, you would think, would make the NAACP happy, given how much time it has spent arguing that black students are disciplined too often and unfairly in traditional public schools.

The assertion by the NAACP that charters increase school segregation is also without merit. A RAND Corporation study (2009) found that

transfers to charter schools did not create dramatic shifts in the sorting of students by race or ethnicity in any of the sites included in the study. In most sites, the racial composition of the charter schools entered by transferring students was similar to that of the [traditional public schools] from which the students came.

These findings were backed up by researchers from the University of Arkansas. Simply put: Urban charter schools and their traditional public-school counterparts are essentially segregated because the neighborhoods they serve are essentially segregated.

If the NAACP wants to help black children, it should pass a resolution affirming that black parents should should not be penalized financially for choosing to send their children to private schools.

The NAACP is correct that charter operators are “targeting,” for lack of a better word, low-income areas for expansion. Of course they are, because that is where the demand for charters is. If public schools in inner cities weren’t doing such a monstrously terrible job at educating their students, the demand from low-income parents for charter schools in their neighborhoods would not be so high.

Too many traditional public schools in cities across the nation are failing to prepare black students for productive lives. Charter schools are not a silver-bullet solution, and it is true that some are poorly managed and produce terrible outcomes. Unlike terrible public schools, however, poor-performing charters close when they don’t get the job done.

If the NAACP truly wants to help black children, it should pass a resolution affirming that black parents should have the freedom to choose the schools their children attend and should not be penalized financially for choosing a private school, whether religious or secular. Empirical evidence shows that school-choice programs work, and polls show that they are broadly popular. In a poll taken in January, the American Federation for Children found that 65 percent of parents support private-school choice, 75 percent support public charter schools, 65 percent support education savings accounts, and 53 percent support school vouchers.

All forms of school choice, public and private, should be on the table for the NAACP. The goals for the NAACP should be not only school choice for every black parent but, for every school educating black children, the requirement that it compete — and for every black child, an opportunity to attend a quality school.

Timothy Benson is a policy analyst with the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank located in Arlington Heights, Ill.

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