Society and Culture

NAACP Tries to Hold Back Tide of History

The NAACP has joined the UFT, the New York City teachers union, in a lawsuit to limit the expansion of charter schools in the city. The NAACP’s decision has set off a firestorm, with many erstwhile supporters and many, many parents criticizing the venerable civil rights organization. (See, for example, City Room or the Huffington Post.)

I don’t intend to wade into that war; my more limited goal is to show that like Xerxes trying to hold back the tide, the NAACP is standing athwart the flow of history. My assessment of this tide comes from a perusal of the most recent publication of the congressionally mandated Condition of Education, issued annually by the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The report documents trends in the exercise of school choice, with data that show the growth of school choice especially among black parents.

Consider Figure 1, which shows the growth in the number of black students enrolled in charter schools. In the span of just about a decade, there has been a fourfold increase in these enrollments, growing to almost 450,000 students in the 2008-2009 academic year. By 2009, 5.7 percent of black students were enrolled in preK-12 charter schools, as compared to 1.9 percent of white students.

Figure 2 shows how much more frequent public school choice is for black parents than for either white or Hispanic parents. Almost a quarter of black students had parents who exercised public school choice, twice the percentage of white parents and substantially higher than the percentage of Hispanic parents exercising public school choice.

There is one further pattern that illustrates why charter schools are so important to black parents and students. Traditionally, the way in which parents exercised school choice was by moving to a neighborhood with a school they preferred. For decades this meant that white parents moved to suburbs where good schools were easier to find than in the central cities they were leaving behind.

While black suburbanization is far more common now than in the past, there is still a persistent difference in patterns of residential mobility in pursuit of good schools. Figure 3 shows that almost 30 percent of white parents report moving to their neighborhood because of the local school. This is fully 12 percentage points higher than the percent of black parents who report moved for that reason. Interestingly, Hispanic parents are closer to white parents in this school choice behavior than they are to black parents. Other data show that residential mobility in the pursuit of good schools is far more common among suburban parents than among parents in cities or rural areas, while charter schools are far more concentrated in cities than elsewhere.

In short, this data shows that charter schools are increasingly the way in which school choice is being exercised by black parents, especially those in central cities. Given the abysmal performance record of so many traditional urban public schools this is certainly a reasonable choice. Interestingly, the suit the NAACP joined also seeks to prevent the closure of 22 schools for poor performance.

Together, it seems as though the NAACP is more interested in protecting existing jobs, even if they are in poorly performing schools, than it is in protecting the parents and students who are seeking a better education through charter schools. Rather than trying to thwart this rising tide of choice, the NAACP would be better off joining the movement to increase the supply of good schools and shut down the bad ones that are committing educational malpractice.

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