By DeWayne Wickham
The NAACP is being attacked by parents of New York City schoolchildren who are angered by the civil rights group’s support of a lawsuit that seeks to keep 20 charter schools out of buildings that already are occupied by traditional public schools.
The suit also attempts to block the closing of some of the city’s underperforming public schools, the kind of schools that make many parents clamor for a way out. In the 20 years since Minnesota enacted the first law allowing this hybrid approach to public education, charter schools have become an increasingly popular escape hatch, especially for black students.
While blacks are 30% of New York City’s 1 million public school children, they are 60% of the youngsters enrolled in the Big Apple’s 125 charter schools. So, black parents of charter school students in the city think the NAACP’s support of the lawsuit, which was filed last month by the United Federation of Teachers, amounts to an act of racial treason.
But it’s not. It is an act of revolution. In his 1957 book, The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi explored the injustices of colonization and concluded that it would take a revolution, not just a revolt to end this form of human oppression.
Charter schools in New York City — and elsewhere in this country — are a revolt against public school systems that fail to properly educate black and Hispanic schoolchildren. While revolts bring about reforms, Memmi explained, revolution is needed to wipe out a system of oppression.
For far too many black children, public school systems oppress more than they educate. They place these students in underachieving, poorly funded schools. And when parents demand better, what they get is steam control — a way to vent their anger, not fix the problem.
In New York City, charter schools — where only 4% of its 1 million public school students can get in — are steam control. They keep the revolt over poor performing public schools from becoming a revolution by distracting parents with the slender reed of hope of getting their child into a better school.
In New York, the choice of who gets in the city’s charter schools is made by lottery — which is to say the luck of the draw. Notwithstanding the indignity of the selection process, there are more than 50,000 students on the waiting list to get into a charter school.
In suing city school officials, the NAACP has a better idea. It wants New York to improve all of its schools, especially its most troubled ones. That’s a revolutionary idea that will require the state of New York to take the lead in meeting its constitutional responsibility to provide “a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.”
The civil rights organization doesn’t want an escape hatch for 4% of New York City’s schoolchildren; it wants a high-quality education for all of them. It rightfully opposes a two-tiered system of public education that pits charter schools against traditional schools and demands instead better schools for all the children in New York’s school system.
What the NAACP wants is a revolutionary change, not the incrementalism — and misdirections — that offer black students the kind of meager educational gains that were a staple of the colonialism Memmi said colonized people the world over must struggle against.