During its century of existence, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has rightfully and successfully tangled with Jim Crow segregationists, school districts opposed to racial integration, even famed (or notorious) Hollywood director D.W. Griffith and his film, The Birth of a Nation. But these days, the nation’s oldest civil rights group finds itself at odds — and on the wrong side of history — with two groups with whom it should be naturally allied: America’s school reform movement — and a younger generation of African Americans.
The latest example came last week when 2,500 parents of students attending New York City’s public charter schools — most of whom are black and Latino — held a protest against the NAACP’s New York branch just a block away from one of its local offices. Why? They were miffed about its decision to join the American Federation of Teachers’ New York City local in suing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to stop the city’s longtime practice of allowing the publicly funded, privately operated schools to share space with its traditional counterparts in the city’s massive (and often half-empty) buildings. The suit, which would essentially stop the opening of 17 new charters, could essentially stem the expansion of those schools, which Bloomberg has championed as part of his decade-long overhaul of the city’s public education system — and whose very existence the AFT and the NAACP have long vehemently opposed.
The protest — which included the appearance of such big-name reformers and celebrities as Seth Gilliam — who played the dedicated Baltimore cop Ellis Carter in The Wire — and Geoffrey Canada (who’s successful Harlem Children’s Zone collection of charters were profiled in the Davis Guggenheim documentary, Waiting for ‘Superman’) — proved to be embarrassing to the NAACP. It was even more embarrassing when the president of the New York State branch found herself pleading its case after 20 concerned parents showed up at its posh Avenue of the Americas office.
This is just the latest example of the NAACP being out of touch. Earlier this year, its branch in Mississippi opposed a bill that would allow charter schools to open in school districts throughout the state. Even amid evidence that just 51 percent of traditional public schools in the Magnolia State were fit for kids to attend — and in spite of the fact that just six out of every ten black high school freshmen (and six in ten freshmen of all races) graduate from high school four years later, the chapter’s president, Derrick Johnson, declared that allowing more charters would “create and maintain a permanent situation of second-class citizens.”
The NAACP has been even more vocal in its opposition to other reform measures — including vouchers, which allow poor parents (especially those from black communities) to escape the nation’s dropout factories and academic failure mills. In Pennsylvania, the NAACP is opposing a measure that would allow companies to collect a tax break in exchange for financing private-school tuition for poor children, declaring that the state should bolster school funding instead of providing an “evacuation strategy” for students to flee abysmal schools. By the way, those students would include the mostly black kids in Philadelphia, whose school district has been under state control for a decade; between 2001 and 2009, the percentage of eighth-graders promoted to senior year of high school declined from 74 percent to 60 percent.
The NAACP has even found itself squaring off with President Barack Obama, whose administration has aggressively (if not always successfully) pushed for overhauling the nation’s woeful traditional public schools. Last year, it teamed up with the National Urban League and a smattering of other old-school civil rights groups to issue a manifesto decrying Obama’s efforts — including the Race to the Top initiative, which, among things, successfully pushed states such as California and New York to expand the number of charter schools — demanding that the administration back their array of warmed-over measures instead. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repaid them in kind by rhetorically smacking them around for failing to realize the importance of their efforts.
There are some dissident NAACP branches that have embraced school reform. But for the most part, the civil rights group has all but abandoned its mantle as a leading force in the debate over how to reform the nation’s lackluster public school systems. In the process, it is also losing relevance with a younger generation of blacks — many of which are now bearing children and sending them to school — who know all too well that just one out of every two black men every graduate from high school and who understand the consequences of academic failure. Over the past decade, they, along with celebrities such as singers John Legend and Fantasia Barrino, have backed efforts to expand charter schools and other reforms, all but leaving the NAACP behind.
It hasn’t always been this way. For most of the past century, the NAACP has been among the foremost foes of those who defended some of the nation’s worst educational practices. Led by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP began its push to desegregate the nation’s public schools and universities in 1935 when it successfully sued Maryland’s state officials for barring black students from attending its university law schools. It would then take on the practice among traditional school districts, especially in the southern states, of segregating black students from their white peers and relegating them to rickety school buildings and other abysmal conditions. These efforts would culminate in the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that would begin the integration of elementary and secondary schools and galvanize the nation’s civil rights movement.
Even today, the NAACP remains dedicated to integration, this time in the form of so-called socioeconomic integration under which districts bus poor students to schools attended by middle-class peers, usually through so-called magnet schools which theoretically also offer some form of school choice. Its most recent push on this front is in Wake County, N.C., where it is battling the school district over plans to end its decades-long integration effort (which only covered a fifth of all students) and go back to the practice of zoning students to neighborhood schools.
The NAACP also remains dedicated to its four-decade effort to improve the nation’s woeful urban schools by filing lawsuits to force states to pour more money into those schools, either by transferring property dollars from wealthier suburban districts or increasing funding to those districts from state dollars. The funding part has largely been successful: NAACP-instigated lawsuits, along with moves by statehouses to relieve homeowners of their property tax burdens, have resulted in the average state funding 48 percent of school expenditures — and as much as 83 percent of all funding for urban districts such as Newark, N.J.
Driving both efforts are outdated notions on how to improve the quality of education: That moving poor black, white and Latino students into schools attended by middle-class peers will result in improving their success in school. And that spending more money on education will lead to better schools in urban communities. But as seen in Wake County, integration in itself does little to address the low quality of teaching and academic curricula that is at the heart of the nation’s education crisis. Nor have funding equity reforms done the trick; Jersey City, N.J, for example, remains one of the nation’s worst school systems despite three decades of additional court-ordered funding by Garden State taxpayers.
By continuing to hold on to these notions, the NAACP has ignored solutions that could actually improve education and lost opportunities to ally with reformers. More importantly, it has alienated black families, particularly those in urban communities often served by failure factories, who have learned from experienced that integration was a false promise and have become savvy about the role played by teachers unions in contributing to the mediocre quality of urban schools. Forty-nine percent of African Americans surveyed in 2009 by the school policy journal Education Next and Harvard University supported charter schools, a seven-point increase over the previous year. They, along with white families, have also launched their own organizations to work closely with school reform activists.
The NAACP has done little to respond to this new generation of black families, partly because of its aging membership, which includes teachers of Baby Boomer age who, like their white colleagues, zealously defend the array of seniority-based privileges they have gained with the help of teachers unions. The fact that the NAACP has longstanding ties to the NEA (and has collected $260,000 from the union over the past two years alone) also factors into the equation. Meanwhile it has done little to recapture its place as a leading player in shaping education policy. Last November, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous proudly announced at a confab held by the reform-minded American Enterprise Institute that it would release its own school reform agenda this year. But the plan, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has yet to materialize.
Instead, the NAACP has launched an effort to increase school funding by diverting dollars from the nation’s criminal justice system (including a report and an oh-so-snazzy online petition for folks to sign). The fact that the nation spends far less on prison construction alone (a mere $1.5 billion in the 2006-2007 fiscal year) than on building schools ($63 billion, including lavish high school football stadiums) doesn’t factor in its thinking; nor does it consider for a moment that the reason American taxpayers spend $228 billion on courts and prisons badly is because it spends $562 billion on schools abysmally.
Thanks to its thoughtless defense of traditional public education, the NAACP’s proud legacy is collecting as much dust as old W.E.B. Du Bois-edited copies of The Crisis.