When NAACP President Benjamin Jealous makes his appearance next week at the American Enterprise Institute, it will likely be the first time the head of what was once America’s leading civil rights organization has had a public conversation with the nation’s school reform movement. It is a pity. As much as school reformers deserve criticism for failing to work with grassroots activists on advancing their agenda, the NAACP has also made an egregious error in its dismissal of them. As a result, the NAACP has lost its important role in addressing the most-critical civil rights issue of this young century.
Jealous will have his own talking points. More than likely, they will include a defense of the poorly thought-out critique of President Barack Obama’s school reform agenda it touted in July, and support for the New York City branch’s thoughtless (and yet successful) effort to beat back the shutdown of 19 dropout factories and academic failure mills. But it would be nice if Jealous made four statements that would actually doplenty more to advance its agenda, improve education for all of our children, and spur progress for Black America :
The NAACP has taken the wrong approach on school reform for far too long. The continuing dropout factory status of Newark, Kansas City, Mo., and other cities that have benefited from funding equity suits is clear evidence that this approach doesn’t spur any kind of reform. Same with the racial and economic integration approaches advocated by the Orfield-Kahlenberg crowd. This is because neither approach addresses the academic and systemic issues that ensure that poor and minority students can’t access high-quality education: low quality of teaching and curricula; state laws and teachers union contracts that allow for experienced teachers to avoid teaching in mostly-minority schools; substandard curricula and academic standards; educational practices such as ability tracking that keep poor black children from getting the college prep education they need to succeed beyond high school; and a culture of mediocrity in which only some students are considered capable of meeting high expectations.
Jealous and his fellow NAACP leaders must realize that you can’t spend your way out of a dropout crisis and that integration simply prevents black and Latino parents from getting high-quality education for their kids in their own neighborhoods. A thorough overhaul of American public education is the only way we can provide every black and Latino child with the learning they need to fulfill their economic and social destinies.
It must embrace the charter school movement: After all, charters have been the leading source of improving access to high quality education for urban black and Latino communities, who would otherwise be forced to attend the dropout factories in their neighborhoods. The success of charter school operators such as KIPP and Uncommon Schools — all of which educate mostly-minority students — can be replicated throughout the nation. And as the Rand Corp. pointed out in its 2008 and 2009 studies, students attending high-quality charters are seven-to-15 percent more likely to graduate than their traditional public school peers.
What the NAACP should do is support efforts to expand the reach of charter schools — including battling suburban school districts, National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who have fought tirelessly to restrict their growth (and deny equality of opportunities to poor black and Latino families). It should also encourage its local units to team up with leading charter school groups such as KIPP and start their own charters. This would not only expand the range of high-quality options for black students, it would even revive the NAACP’s former role as the leading player in civil rights.
The organization has ignored the school reform movement to its peril: Let’s be clear: If you are black and interested in reforming American public education, you don’t look to the NAACP as a vehicle for those efforts. Why? Because this most-old school of civil rights players has failed to understand what a younger generation of African-Americans know all too well: More-systemic reforms (including breaking ranks with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) are critical to black economic and social advancement. As a result, the NAACP has become irrelevant in the school reform conversation — and the discussion about improving the lives of African-Americans overall.
The NAACP must take the steps made by Michael Lomax and the United Negro College Fund and embrace school reform. This means forming alliances with groups such as the Education Equality Project (on whose board Lomax serves) and the Education Trust. It can also mean embracing vouchers and other forms of school choice that allow black children to escape our worst schools. These moves alone won’t make the NAACP more-relevant in the conversation about improving the economic and social advancement of the black community: It must make up for three decades of missteps, including the Shirley Sherrod affair and its recent obsession over the Tea Party movement. But it would surely be a step forward.
It must rally Iron Men, men of experience and accomplishment, to stem the dropout crisis among our young black men: So long as one out of every two young black males continue to drop out into poverty and prison, there is no way that Black America can advance itself in the economic and social mainstream. In turn, it also means that an America that is increasingly brown and black will be left behind in the global economy. Yet the NAACP has failed to team up with groups working on these issues such as the Black Star Project or even develop its own approaches.
The first step is easy: Team up with the Schott Foundation for Public Education (its partner in crime on the anti-Obama manifesto) and start a campaign to rally black men of character and experience to mentor the next generation. The NAACP could also work with the Black Star Project or even with the National PTA’s Million Hours of Power campaign. The organization should also address the nation’s reading crisis, the single-biggest culprit behind black male academic failure; local branches can host reading instruction efforts in schools and communities. Given its wide reach, there is no reason why the NAACP isn’t playing a more-prominent role in addressing this issue.
It is high time for the NAACP to embrace school reform. Jealous can either take this step next week — or keep the organization on its slip-slide into the ashbin of history.