Earlier this year, students and teachers from several public schools (mostly charters) in Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx, made a pilgrimage to Alabama and Mississippi to pay homage and mark the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides. By all accounts the experience was powerful and moving—treading upon that hallowed path, students and teachers alike were awed by the strength and sacrifice of those volunteers, humbled by the brutal violence and vile menace they endured to wrest our nation’s soul from the desecrating, and seemingly unyielding grasp of segregation.
Needless to say there was much confusion and disappointment among these same students and teachers when in May, nearly half a century to the day the Freedom Riders began their historic journey, the NAACP’s New York Chapter joined the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in a lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education. Their goal: overturn the “co-location” of every new charter school, effectively closing all of these new public schools (including the one I lead). The message was clear, if dissonant: the NAACP wants to prevent over 7000 Black and Latino students (the very people for whom the Freedom Riders risked their lives), from attending high quality public schools of their choice. How could this be?
Several leaders of the NAACP contend that these new (as well as existing) co-located charter schools engendered a return to “segregation”. Co-location is the sharing of open space between a new public school and an existing one. This viewpoint is supported by two notions: a) charter schools serve only a small portion of the Black and Latino children so desperately need their reforms; and b) the students who attend these “co-located” charter schools enjoy a higher quality schooling experience than their peers within the same school building.
Let’s be clear, both (a) and (b) are true: though charter schools in New York City are populated by the most underserved and disadvantaged students from the most distressed communities in the city, there are not enough to serve all 1.2 million students (legislation proffered at the behest of the UFT continues to block the proliferation of more successful charter schools). And charters schools are given (and exercise) the freedom to spend their resources in whatever manner they see fit to create a high-quality schooling experience for their students (even though we receive about a third less per student than traditional schools, and absolutely no funding for facilities). Just like traditional public schools in affluent neighborhoods, charter schools organize families and supporters of their school to raise money to make up the funding gap and give their students the tools and environment they need to excel.
But to call these circumstances a “return to segregation” is at best a gross mischaracterization, and at worse privileges a dangerous paradigm that leaves the status quo nearly unassailable. Yet this is exactly the argument some would have us believe, that because successful charter schools cannot serve every single student who needs them, then no student should be served by them. It would mean that unless we could liberate every student from schools where the eighth grade literacy rate for Black and Latino students is less than 20%, then no student should be saved from them. How can this be? The fact that the NAACP’s Freedom Schools only reached and served just over 3000 students, out of the hundreds of thousands of Black children who needed them in 1964 Mississippi, did not diminish their importance, nor negate their necessity.
Such thinking demands that change must come all at once or not at all. Imagine if such logic had taken hold during the civil rights era—it would have necessitated an invalidation of integration in Birmingham if it did not simultaneously take hold in Montgomery; it would have insisted on the rolling back of the right to vote in New York if it continued to be denied in Mississippi. It is ludicrous to think this an effective strategy—the very idea of “progress” would lose all meaning.
Instead I’d like to suggest a different call to arms: the NAACP should switch sides in the current lawsuit, and counter-sue for the establishment of MORE successful charter schools, and demand the implementation of their successful strategies in traditional public schools. The NAACP should start their own network of charter schools, blending the powerful culturally relevant instructional models of their historic Freedom Schools, with the effective pedagogical practices of the most successful charter schools. They should organize rallies and fundraisers in support of any public school (charter or traditional) serving a majority of students of color where more than 75% of them score proficient or higher on their state reading assessments. They should protest those schools, districts, boards, unions, etc., of any public school (charter or traditional) where more than 30% of students score below proficient on their state reading assessments. When it comes to education, the NAACP’s position should be clear: hold EVERYONE involved accountable for providing and proliferating an excellent, world-class education to the children in our communities.
You know I have loved the NAACP all my life. As a young Black boy, I was raised and nurtured on a steady diet of the NAACP’s storied fight to change a world that stubbornly resisted the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education every step of the way. Amidst abject poverty, I was sustained and inspired by their example to serve one’s community with fierce resolve.
Today, a teacher, lawyer and school founder, I am the product of public education, a direct beneficiary of Brown. My journey, from North Philadelphia to UVA, NYU Law to mergers and acquisitions at Cravath, leading a dynamic education nonprofit in Washington DC to founding an award winning charter school model, my life is evidence of the exponential returns of a sincere investment in Brown’s promise.
I truly believe that the NAACP has what it takes to lead and finish what they and our other civil rights elders started 50 years ago, to use every strategy, every arrow in the quiver (charter schools, traditional schools, Freedom Schools, whatever works) to see that every child of color realizes the promise of the American dream Brown demanded they should have the opportunity to pursue.
But will they? I want to believe they shall, though I am waiting to see what they do.
Rafiq R. Kalam Id-Din II, Esq is the founder & managing partner of the Teaching Firms of America-Professional Preparatory Charter School.