It is nice to see the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s announcement this past Saturday that it is supporting the state recognition of gay marriages. While I may not be a fan of gay marriage from a religious perspective, the Founding Documents make it quite clear that governments have no right to restrict gay men and women from the same privilege of civil marriage (and the accompanying benefits) given to heterosexuals such as myself. So the NAACP is perfectly right to demand that all Americans gain the same civil liberties they have earned from birth and by naturalization as citizens of our nation.
At the same time, it is difficult to take the NAACP seriously on this or any issue because it continues to be on the wrong side of the most-important civil rights and economic issue facing Black America today and this nation as a whole: The need to overhaul American public education so that all children — especially kids from poor, minority, and even gay households — get the high-quality education they need and deserve.
Even as NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and the rest of the organization’s leadership has found time to weigh in on other issues, the old-school civil rights group still hasn’t released the education agenda it promised to release back in 2010 during Jealous’ appearance at an American Enterprise Institute confab. It did push an effort to increase school funding by diverting dollars from the nation’s criminal justice system without considering 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) — and, more importantly, that the nation spends $228 billion on courts and prisons badly because it spends $562 billion on schools abysmally.
Beyond offering that mishmash of a proposal, the NAACP has remained silent on systemic reform. Save for a few NAACP branches (including its affiliate in Connecticut, have stepped up in the discussions over Gov. Dan Malloy’s school reform effort, and advocated on behalf of Bridgeport mother Tanya McDowell, who will serve five years for trying to provide her child with a high-quality school), the nation’s oldest civil rights group offers nothing substantial on addressing issues such as ending Zip Code Education policies, expanding school choice, addressing childhood illiteracy, and revamping how teachers are recruited, trained, paid, and evaluated (especially when it comes to bringing more black men into the teaching profession). Meanwhile it has ceded ground to Parent Power groups such as the Connecticut Parents Union and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, old-school civil rights organizations as the United Negro College Fund and 100 Black Men, and players such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Dr. Steve Perry, who are doing the work for which the NAACP was once known.
What it has done since Jealous’ appearance is continue embracing an education traditionalist platform that actually puts the association in the position of aiding and abetting the damage to black children that it is supposed to defend. It has passed a resolution effectively declaring its opposition to the very existence of charter schools. Its New York chapter teamed up with the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple affiliate (from which it picked up $16,200 in contributions during the union’s 2010-2011 fiscal year) to wage an unsuccessful and embarrassing lawsuit to shut down charters that serve black children. Its New York chapter boss, Hazel Dukes, essentially declared that black families who seek out the opportunity for high-quality education by choosing charters were “doing the business of slave masters”, while her counterpart in Mississippi proclaimed this year that the charters would merely “create and maintain a permanent situation of second-class citizens.” The antics even extended to the local level in places such as Chapel Hill, N.C., where the local NAACP branch opposed the launch of a charter school named for Howard Lee, a former state education board chairman who was the first black man elected to head a predominantly white southern city since Reconstruction.
What the NAACP has done is more than just refuse to be a much-needed public policy voice and activist on behalf of transforming a failed system — and refused to be allies with school reformers, black and otherwise. It has alienated black families, particularly those in urban communities often served by failure factories, have seen how past solutions such as racial and socioeconomic integration have done little more than deny them high-quality schools in their own communities without helping schoolmates and kids succeed, and understand that AFT and National Education Association affiliates are far more-interested in keeping the status quo ante for their benefit. 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 lure a new generation of African-Americans who realize that education is the most-important key to achieving social and economic equality.
Ultimately, the NAACP has effectively agreed to support policies and practices that condemn far too many of our black children it is supposed to defend to poverty and prison. This includes Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling and restrictions on the expansions of charters and school choice which effectively promote the very segregation it has long opposed. But it isn’t just about African-American children. For Latino, Asian, poor whites, and even those from gay households regardless of color or class, the NAACP has decided through its activities that those kids also don’t matter. It is more interested in collecting NEA and AFT checks, and maintaining the outdated notion of integration as school reform that neither addresses the underlying systemic issues that lead to our children getting low-quality education (and was only supported by an earlier generation of civil rights leaders because it was the only way to get what they thought was high-quality education to black children of the time in an age in which Jim Crow-dominated school bards would never pour resources into schools in black neighborhoods). With one out of every two young black men dropping out of school and into poverty and prison — and too many black kids overdiagnosed as special ed cases and condemned to life’s short buses — the NAACP’s stance is shameful and morally untenable.
So it is good to see the NAACP get it right on one issue. Perhaps it will finally embraces systemic reform before it’s too late.