10 Reasons Why the NAACP Is Absolutely Right About a National Moratorium on Charter Schools

The venerable civil rights lobby has come under attack for its critique of the charter school industry.

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As the 2016-2017 school year begins, champions of privatizing traditional public schools appear to be launching a new round of political and media campaigns to defend charter schools, despite growing criticism of their academics, business models and calls for a charter moratorium.

The latest media volleys from the pro-charter establishment are typified by a recent editorial at the Washington Post, which slammed a proposed resolution now before the NAACP — and one passed by Black Lives Matter organizers — that says the privately run takeover of traditional K-12 schools should be halted nationally until its negative impacts are reversed. As is often the case with pro-charter forces, the argument framed by the Post’s editorial writers is cast as doing what’s best for the children, in this case non-white kids from poor cities. “The thought of denying school choice to these families — something that middle- and upper-class parents blithely take for granted — is simply maddening,” fumes the Post.

No, what’s maddening is the Post's wholesale dismissal of the substantive complaints laid out in the NAACP’s draft resolution, which cites unaccountable private boards running schools, extremely segregated student bodies, psychologically harmful environments, diversion of limited taxpayer resources, fiscal mismanagement and corruption, and more. The NAACP wants state and federal civil rights and education regulators to end the litany of harmful practices.

Not every charter school is the same. There are 6,700 nationwide with 3 million students. Some embody the idea of locally run experimental schools as envisioned by the American Federation of Teachers in the 1980s and first authorized by state legislatures a quarter century ago. Today, however, there is a rapidly growing national charter industry that is dominated by corporate franchises seeking to build branded educational chains at taxpayer expense.

This industry’s boosters are blind to the self-dealing and harmful record, instead putting forth the notion that the wealthy and business leaders always know best—even when it comes to running public schools. That’s the assumption in another recent pro-charter epistle from Harvard Magazine, aimed at its well-off and often influential alumni who are urged to support privatizing traditional K-12 schools. “Defenders of the status quo will argue that some indefinable essence is lost if anyone other than a government agency operates a school,” the article states. “The long-term consequences of greater competition within an industry for consumers and society as a whole can be highly beneficial, as deregulation of the airlines and telecommunications industries has shown.”

These assertions, which deride democratic access and accountability, protect the interests of the billionaire funders that launched the sector's growth and continue to deploy a private army of lobbyists and policy experts to chip away at traditional schools. They don’t advocate improving today’s existing schools, but replacing them in a wholesale and deregulated manner.

One recent example from education blogger Mercedes Schneider is revealing. The Walton Family Foundation, underwritten by Walmart profits, funded the creating of a new non-profit called the School Empowerment Network. It won a $2.3 million contract from Michigan’s education agency that has taken over Detroit’s public school, she noted, despite lower bids from others with longer track records in public education. Schneider quoted a Detroit Free Press report that said, “The contract was awarded as the EAA [Education Achievement Authority of Michigan] is under siege because of poor academic performance, declining enrollment and an FBI investigation into kickback schemes involving vendors.” In other words, the sector’s self-dealing continues.

This complicated and byzantine backdrop is what’s behind the NAACP’s draft resolution calling for a nationwide charter moratorium. It’s illustrative of how the fine print of K-12 privatization plays out on a state-by-state basis, which the NAACP’s resolution notes as it cites a 2014 report by the Journey for Justice Alliance, “an alliance of 38 organizations of black and brown parents in 23 states, which has joined with 175 other national local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations calling for a moratorium on the Federal Charter schools program, which has pumped over $3 billion into new charter schools, many of which have already closed or have failed the students drawn to them by the illusive promise of quality.”    

10 Reasons Why the NAACP Is Right

The Journey for Justice Alliance report is aptly titled, “Death By A Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures and Public School Sabotage.” Here are 10 points from the NAACP’s draft 2016 resolution on charter schools, and why the organization is absolutely correct that a nationwide moratorium is warranted—and should be supported by more progressive groups.

1. Targeting of poor communities. The charter industry, especially its ambitious chains, has targeted poor communities, telling policymakers and parents they will do what traditional public schools have not done—provide a better education. However, the NAACP has said this targeting mirrors the “predatory lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage disaster, putting schools and communities impacted by these practices at great risk of loss and harm.”

2. Anti-democratic practices. Charter proponents tell lawmakers, who authorize their creation and expansion, they cannot achieve desired results unless freed from government oversight and regulation. That translates to replacing locally elected school boards with private boards, keeping those meetings private, not releasing documents, being exempt from bidding for contracts, being exempt from hiring credentialed teachers, etc.

3. Selective admissions. Unlike traditional public schools, charters do not have to admit all students in the district. They can pick and choose and many do, avoiding students with learning disabilities and those learning English as a second language. That is to try to cut costs associated with special needs students and to boost student test scores, one of the industry’s favorite metrics and talking points. The prevalence of excessive discipline and punitive practices in some schools is similarly tied to the test results they seek.

4. Extreme segregation. Charter schools in urban America are among the most segregated in the nation, especially for black youth. While segregation for blacks among all public schools has been increasing for two decades, black students in charter settings are much more intensively segregated, with the Civil Rights Project of the ACLU finding urban charters typically enroll more than 90 percent of students from under-represented minority backgrounds. The expansion of charters in many cities is hastening a return of highly segregated schools.   

5. Unwarranted financial perks. Charter schools are given many taxpayer-funded privileges such as per-pupil subsidies, access and use of buildings owned by school districts, access to government borrowing and bonding authority, and many tax breaks, all of which have been used to divert funds from classrooms to the benefit of top managers, contractors and investors. The NAACP's proposal opposes any diversion of public funds to "for-profit, private and/or charter schools."  

6. Fiscal mismanagement. The secrecy surrounding school administration creates a climate that encourages financial self-dealing. As the NAACP noted, upwards of half a billion dollars in taxpayer funds given to charters nationwide cannot be accounted for—the result of introducing a business model that lacks transparency, avoids government oversight and implicitly cultivates corruption and enrichment opportunities.

7. Diversion of taxpayer funds. Charter proponents could put their energies into private schools in their communities. Instead, they seek to access public funds to create new schools instead of improving existing ones. One consequence is the diversion of limited taxpayer resources in communities where those are scare to begin with. As a result, traditional K-12 schools find their budgets cut, school buildings and facilities usurped, “resulting in shortages of resources and space and increasing tension and conflict within school communities,” the NAACP said.

8. Self-dealing and loss of local control. The replacement of locally elected school boards and publicly accountable administrations with privately run operations creates a scenario where students and communities are put at risk while those on the inside can make profits. That’s the case regardless of educational outcomes or whether public funds are wasted. That same lack of transparency is a major issue for parents, according to the NAACP, who cannot find out why students are “dismissed from school for disciplinary reasons.”

9. Violation of civil and educational rights. The NAACP noted that not only are charter schools anti-democratic and harmful to communities, but likely are violating civil rights laws and education statutes when it comes to admissions, disciplinary practices and expulsions, all of which need to be investigated by the requisite federal and state authorities.  

10. No more state agency coverups. Part of the problem with the proliferation of charters and their harmful practices is the reality that state and federal education officials frequently are more responsive to the charter lobby than to communities. That is why the NAACP’s draft resolution says it “opposes bills that would weaken the investigative powers of any legislative body from uncovering charter school fraud, corruption, and/or waste” and it support actions “that would strengthen local governance and transparency… [and] protect students and families from exploitive governance practices.”

For all these reasons, the NAACP’s proposed resolution is calling for a moratorium “on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools” and “full funding and support of high quality free public education for all children."
 The NAACP votes later this fall on whether to formally adopt it, and as a result is now being pressured by a powerful pro-charter establishment to back off.

The Pro-Charter Lobby’s New Offensive?

The Washington Post’s latest pro-charter editorial characterizes the claims of charter critics as exceptions rather than the rule. While that is to be expected from defenders of a new industry and national institution that has gained a foothold, it is deeply wrong to belittle the issues that affected communities raise—which is the basis for the NAACP’s draft resolution.

“To be sure, there are charter schools with problems, as was demonstrated by comedian John Oliver’s recent skewering of several outrageous cases,” the Post wrote. “But rather than impose artificial limits, the response should be to fix such problems as lax authorization standards or unfair discipline practices while replicating the successes. Schools that fail to educate students — be they charter or traditional — should be shuttered.”

What the WaPo editorial writers miss, or simply don’t want to see, is that a new industry has been created that is fundamentally threatening the democratic promise and nature of public education across America. By introducing the private sector into education, the forces of privatization are doing what they have always done—seeking to exploit a new system, paid for by taxpayers, regardless of its stated public purpose.

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).