Whether or not you think Republican presidential nominee presumptive Mitt Romney deserves credit for appearing yesterday before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual convention (and whether President Barack Obama should be be dinged, for not showing up up at all) is more than likely to depend on your voting preference than on anything else. Same is true for Romney’s delivery. The reality, in any case, is that the conflict in economic and political visions between the two groups is such a chasm that there was no way Romney was going to be all that well-received unless he (and the GOP) changed his positions or NAACP members changed theirs. And that’s not likely to happen.
But the one thing that can be said is that Romney made a smart move, both politically and for advancing the school reform movement, when he declared that it was time to end Zip Code Education policies, that have forced black families into “waiting and waiting for that promise” of high-quality education for the children they love. Reminding NAACP leaders about the woeful statistic that black children were disproportionately forced into dropout factories and failure mills, Romney repeated his pledge to step up the federal role in expanding school choice – - including voucherizing Title 1 dollars so that poor and minority families get wider options for high-quality schools.
Certainly this wasn’t a message that either NAACP President of Benjamin Todd Jealous or board chairman Roslyn Brock wanted to hear. Same is true for the group’s aging members, many of whom have proven to be more loyal to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers than to young black families stuck with sending their kids to the worst American public education offers. But it is one they would have also heard from President Obama (albeit with more focus on charter schools), from the new generation of school reform-oriented civil rights leaders that no longer look to the NAACP for leadership on anything involving advancing the economic and social futures of our people, and from black mothers and fathers who have seen how choice helps their children gain opportunities for brighter destinies. And it’s a message to which NAACP leaders must listen and embrace.
Once the leading organization in advancing school reform during the days of Jim Crow segregation, the NAACP no longer occupies either the thought-leadership role on how to help all black children get high-quality teaching and curricula, or the high moral ground on education. It still hasn’t released the education agenda it promised to release back in 2010 during Jealous’ appearance at an American Enterprise Institute confab, preferring instead to focus its energies on the counterproductive idea of diverting dollars from the nation’s criminal justice system into traditional district schools. The positioning ignores the reality that America spends far less on prison construction alone (a mere $1.5 billion in the 2007-2008 fiscal year) than on building schools ($69 billion, including lavish high school football stadiums). More importantly, the NAACP fails to get to the heart of the matter: That the nation spends $247 billion on courts and prisons badly because it spends $593 billion on schools abysmally. When half of all fourth-grade young black men are functionally illiterate, and one out of two of their brothers and cousins drop out before graduating high school, it isn’t a shock that so many of them land in prison (and sadly enough, get the education that could have helped them avoid orange jumpsuits in the first place).
Save for branches in states such as Connecticut, the NAACP has consistently opposed anything that resembles systemic reform — and has essentially supported the very Zip Code Education policies that perpetuate the kind of economic inequality it proclaims it opposes. From passing a resolution that declares its opposition to the expansion of charter schools, to the unsuccessful and embarrassing move by its Big Apple affiliate to team up with the AFT’s New York City local to stop the city from allowing charters to share space with traditional counterparts in half-empty schools, to utterances by NAACP leaders such as New York chapter boss Hazel Dukes (who told one charter school parent that declared that black families like her were “doing the business of slave masters”) and her counterpart in Mississippi (who bellowed that charters would merely “create and maintain a permanent situation of second-class citizens), the NAACP has ignored the critical role charters and other forms of choice have played in helping black children (and other kids from minority and poor households) get high-quality education, and build pride in themselves and their race by interacting with successful schoolmates who look like them. And in leading an unsuccessful effort two years ago with the National Urban League to shame President Obama into backing away from the best parts of his reform agenda (one of the likely reasons, along with the reality that NAACP voters aren’t exactly supportive of Romney, why the president didn’t bless it with his presence) the organization effectively shut itself out of being a real player in helping all black children succeed.
By embracing an education traditionalist thinking and Zip Code Education, the NAACP is aiding and abetting the damage to black children that it is supposed to defend. By taking money from NEA and AFT affiliates (including the $16,200 picked up by its New York branch from the AFT’s Big Apple unit during the union’s 2010-2011 fiscal year), the association is also betraying its obligations as a civil rights group to oppose policies that promote the same denials of equal educational opportunities against which it supposedly fights. In the process, the NAACP refuses to be a much-needed public policy voice and activist on behalf of transforming a failed system, alienating the very school reformers and black families (especially in urban communities) who are looking to build schools that black children (and all kids) deserve. And by adhering to the thinking of aging members who have a vested interest in maintaining failed ideas about how schools should serve black children, the NAACP has also lost opportunities to gain support from a new generation of African-Americans who realize that education is the most-important key to achieving social and economic equality.
When both Romney and Obama share common cause on systemic reform and on expanding choice, it is clear that the NAACP is on the wrong side of history. Now it is time for it to do the right thing. This starts with Jealous and Brock using the same courage of conviction they put into play earlier this year in getting the association to support allowing gay civil marriage, and directing it toward embracing choice and Parent Power. Certainly the likes of Duke will howl in protest, and aging members will resign in protest. But in embracing reform, the NAACP will win over younger black families and professionals who are also concerned about addressing other issues outside of education. And in the process, the NAACP will have taken steps to helping build stronger economic futures for black communities (and all of America).
The NAACP should take Romney’s views and that of Obama and others, to heart. Or else it will end up being a dusty artifact instead of being a real leader in improving the futures of black children.