Confronting School Choice, Part I: The NAACP’s Charter Moratorium and the Backlash

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YES Prep students hold up signs during the Official Kickoff of National School Choice Week at Union Station on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, in Houston. Photo: Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle.

On October 15, 2016, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) announced that its Board of Directors had ratified a resolution that grew out of the 2016 National Convention “calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion and for the strengthening of oversight in governance and practice.” The NAACP proposes that this moratorium should last until the following conditions are met:

(1) Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools
(2) Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system
(3) Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate, and
(4) Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

Since news of this resolution began circulating during summer 2016, the NAACP has been the subject of backlash from education reformers who favor charter schools. What I have found striking, particularly while reading the responses of African American charter proponents, is that critics of this resolution tend to characterize it as being in contrast to the NAACP’s historic efforts against educational inequality.

Per Democrats for Education Reform president Shavar Jeffries, “W.E.B. DuBois is rolling in his grave. The NAACP, a proud organization with a historic legacy of expanding opportunity for communities of color, now itself stands in the schoolhouse door, seeking to deny life-changing educational opportunities to millions of children whose parents and families desperately seek alternatives to schools that have failed them for too long.”

A group of over 160 African American education reformers acknowledges that “[e]very Black American has benefited from the NAACP’s honored history of securing justice, promoting equality and expanding opportunity.” Citing gains made by black children in charters, they state that “a substantial number of Black parents want to have the option of enrolling their children in high-quality charter schools. For many urban Black families, charter schools are making it possible to do what affluent families have long been able to do: rescue their children from failing schools. The NAACP should not support efforts to take that option away from low-income and working-class Black families.”

Nate Davis, Executive Chairman of K12 Inc., characterizes the NAACP as “an organization built on good intentions and good causes. It’s one of the few reliably steady organizations African Americans can depend on when freedoms are compromised by generations of oppression, segregation and institutional racism.” This history, for Davis, is why “it came as a surprise when NAACP delegates called for, and the NAACP board ratified, a national ban on charter schools.”

Even entertainer and NAACP Image Award winner John Legend has weighed in. “As the oldest voice on civil rights in America, the NAACP has always been a leader in understanding the issues that communities of color are facing—including in our public education system,” he wrote in Essence. “That’s why I was confused and upset by their decision to press pause on the progress in one area of education that’s been a bright spot for many communities of color.”

In each of the responses mentioned above, the writers invoke the NAACP’s history of fighting to expand educational opportunity for African Americans. They recount the ills that continue to plague public schools in the twenty-first century. Then they characterize the NAACP as being out of step with popular black opinion, with the consensus of education reformers, including the Obama administration—and, ultimately, with its own legacy of racial progress.

Why, these commentators ask, would the NAACP call for a moratorium when there is bipartisan support for charter expansion? Why, when a wide swath of Americans identify education as the most pressing civil rights issue of our time, would the nation’s oldest civil rights organization reject an educational option that is so popular with African American families? Why would this organization, which has historically provided critical infrastructure for waging legal battles for black freedom, act in a way that could curtail the individual liberties of black parents and children seeking a way out of failing schools?

Indignant responses notwithstanding, the NAACP’s recent actions can only be seen as confusing, surprising, or out of line with its previous educational stances if we collectively decide to ignore the organization’s record on school choice.

A glance back at NAACP publications of the past four decades reveals that the conversation, for them, is deeper than the relatively recent push for charter schools.1 Rather, the question at hand has long been whether embracing an increasingly prominent philosophy of “school choice” would supplant its goal of securing integrated, high-quality, free public schooling for every child. The delegates and Executive Board of the NAACP, in crafting and ratifying this most recent resolution, place charter schools on a continuum of choice-based educational reforms that they identify as falling short of that ideal.

In the second part of this blog, I will dig deeper into the NAACP’s historical response to school choice initiatives and demonstrate that the organization’s current stance on charter schools exhibits near-total continuity with its prior educational mission and tactics. I hope it will become clear that the efforts of charter proponents to characterize the present call for a moratorium as a break from the NAACP’s legacy of advocacy are at best ahistorical and at worst disingenuous.


Lindsey E. Jones is a PhD Candidate in History of Education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and a 2016-2018 Pre-doctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation project, “‘Not a Place of Punishment’: the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, 1915-1940,” historicizes the education and incarceration of black girls by examining Virginia’s only reformatory for delinquent African American girls. Follow her on Twitter @noumenal_woman.

  1. See for instance: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Resolutions Adopted by the Sixty-Second Annual Convention of the NAACP at Minneapolis, Minn., July 5-9 1971,” 4.
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