It was an inspiring sight: a protest rally 3,000 strong in the heart of Harlem. Students, parents, and teachers wielding signs and slogans, all standing up for their right to pursue a quality public-school education.
But the target of their anger was unexpected: the NAACP.
In a role reversal, the esteemed civil-rights organization—which helped secure equal access to education a half-century ago in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education—is now decidedly on the wrong side of history.
This past Friday, the New York chapter of the NAACP filed a lawsuit with the United Federation of Teachers to stop the expansion of 19 charter schools across the City of New York. The alleged injustice? The failure of the charter schools to equitably share building space with traditional public schools when it came to facilities such as time in the gym. But instead of trying to solve the scheduling problem, the lawsuit simply seeks to stop the expansion of these schools, making them—and 7,000 students already accepted for the fall 2011 school year—functionally homeless.
As Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem charter-school pioneer featured in the hit documentary Waiting for Superman, explained, “A bunch of us in the charter world honestly believe the UFT is not interested in charter schools becoming a permanent part of the landscape in New York City. And the way they think they can stop that from happening is to block access to public-school buildings—which we need if we're going to grow.”
Leadership Prep Ocean Hill parent Kathleen Kernivan went straight to the heart of the issue while addressing the crowd:
“My child cannot be told that she's not going to get to go to her school in September,” she said. “I cannot look her in the eye, as a parent, and tell her, ‘Well, the problem is that this group of people that Mommy told you about during Black History Month, that did all those great things a long time ago—they want to stop you from doing great things.”
With the crowd roaring its approval, she concluded: “NAACP, please, don't turn your back on my little girl. Turn your back on this lawsuit instead.”
These parents of charter-school kids are passionate about their child’s education—and the students are excited about the prospect of learning in a way that is positively idealistic compared to the inner-city dropout factories that are their alternatives.
Here’s Harlem Success Academy parent—and NAACP member—Tasha Keys explaining her enthusiasm for her daughter’s charter school: “We do have a very thick homework package and the uniform policies are very strict, but it makes the kids feel united. I’ve chaperoned a lot of field trips, and all the other schools look at us in wonderment because our kids are all in uniform and they’re all in silence together. We have little clapping codes that we do to get everybody back to attention. The school is the best, and the kids love it. They live to go to school every day.” You can’t make this stuff up. It should soften the heart of the hardest cynic and give you hope for the future.
But New York NAACP President Hazel Dukes—who pleaded guilty to stealing $13,000 from a friend and co-worker suffering from cancer while serving as New York City’s OTB commissioner in the early 1990s—has dismissed the commitment of pro-charter-school protesters in arch terms without a hint of historic irony, saying they “can march and have rallies all day long… We will not respond.”
It’s rare to have a policy debate that is both cutting edge and really clear. This is not an issue of right versus left—it is a matter of right versus wrong.
“I cannot look her in the eye, as a parent, and tell her, ‘Well, the problem is that this group of people that Mommy told you about during Black History Month, that did all those great things a long time ago—they want to stop you from doing great things.”
Education reform is a civil-rights fight for our time. It pits a bureaucracy focused on byzantine work rules and pay packages against parents and students working to get an equal a shot at the American dream through quality education.
The status quo is both unfair and unsustainable, separate and unequal—kids divided by accident of birth and income, sentenced to failing schools that wealthier parents can bypass. Charter schools are one innovative option to alleviate that inequality of opportunity.
That’s why there are 50,000 parents on the waiting list for charter schools in New York City. They are powerfully expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo—and who among their critics would honestly be willing to trade places? School-overcrowding arguments don’t hold water as a way of keeping out charter schools, because there are 130,000 empty seats in public elementary and middle schools alone.
We know that more money is not the answer to the stagnation in public education. It is innovation and individual attention. In every aspect of American life we have learned that competition inspires improvement because it creates accountability, while monopolies resist it. Education is no exception.
The national NAACP should intervene and stop the group's illogical participation in this lawsuit before a miscarriage of justice occurs in their name, tarnishing its hard-won reputation for fighting on behalf of the rights of minority families. Rather than opening itself up to accusations of hypocrisy—and putting political interests over individual people – the NAACP should listen to the words chanted at the rally: “NAACP—Don’t Divide Us—Unite Us!”
With the new school year just three months away and 7,000 dreams hanging in the balance, Geoffrey Canada said he still hopes that cooler heads will prevail: “I think this could be settled in good faith by us sitting down together. But deciding to do a lawsuit is ratcheting up the rhetoric on this issue and making some children in the city seem like they are second-class citizens,” he said. “And I don't care whether it's public-school kids or charter-school kids - none of our children should ever be put in a position of feeling like they're second-class citizens.”
John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.