Washington State’s public education system is broken.

Consider this, courtesy of Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition:

“Forty percent of Washington State’s children live in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line, and a disproportionate number of these are children of color. Washington State also has the fifth biggest opportunity gap between black and white students in the United States, and the gap between Hispanic and White students in Washington – about two and a half grade levels – is nearly as large.”

Seattle Public Schools, like many others across the state, also has a well-documented history of disproportionate discipline of students of color.

We need things to change. Our kids need different opportunities and different results right now, even as most of Seattle remains oblivious to the segregation and inequity in our schools. That’s how far along we are in solving this problem. Most people don’t know or admit it’s a problem, and many more don’t or wouldn’t care.

Meanwhile, those of us who agree that students of color are not getting the educational opportunities they deserve — which should unite is in spite of any and all other differences, considering the scale of the problem we’re facing — spend as much time fighting each other as we do fighting for change. We keep splitting hairs until we find we’ve split ourselves, gradually falling into factions: you’re either pro-charter or pro-union, part of the anti-reform crowd or one of the privatizers.

Recently the NAACP issued a strongly worded resolution regarding education. Rather than decrying our inequitable traditional public schools or demanding change for perpetually under-funded, low-performing schools, the NAACP chose to tag itself into this childish game by choosing a side, calling for a “moratorium on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools.”

It also resolved to “support legislation AND EXECUTIVE ACTIONS (capitalization per the original) that would strengthen local governance and transparency of charter schools and, in doing so, affirms to protect students and families from exploitative governance practices.”

Seattle Public Schools are governed by a school board whose majority does not represent the interests of most students or families in the city. Does the NAACP plan to step in and save us from the exploitative governance practices we’re currently struggling under? Maybe by overriding our half-baked school board, or by forcing an equitable McCleary solution through the legislature?

No, this is not an earnest voice calling for equity, but an acknowledgement that charter schools sit balanced on a deeply entrenched line in the sand. And instead of attacking the source of inequity regardless of politics, the NAACP is publicly declaring that it’s chosen a side.

To wit: Julian Vasquez Heilig, who serves as Education Chair for the NAACP chapter that wrote the resolution, broke the news of the resolution on his own blog on July 29. In the handful of posts since, one has been headlined “Will @ShavarJeffries chicken out?” (Jeffries is a charter supporter and head of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)), and another bore this image of his name violently opposing his pro-charter enemy (below).



This is not the tone of someone looking to collaborate to solve a problem. This is Vasquez Heilig using the NAACP as a platform to build his own brand and proliferate his own views.

Most of us agree by now that students of color are not getting the educational opportunities they deserve. Most within the NAACP, I imagine, believe the same. Rather than elbowing each other to get to the front of the line, let’s go our slightly separate ways with mutual support and race to the finish. If our traditional public schools are so good, don’t issue a moratorium on what you perceive as the competition — go out and prove how damn good those public schools are.

NAACP CEO Cornell Brooks’ bio says “he is working with Association leadership and membership to build an NAACP that is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and one million members strong.”

My multi-racial family lives in South Seattle. My sons are biracial. My oldest attends our neighborhood school: by definition, an inner-city, urban, traditional public school that struggles to educate kids of color and has had three principals in the past four years. My youngest is likely to follow him there in a few years.

This is real for me. It’s real for a lot of people. Our public education system is not working for enough families like mine, and while it’s hard to come out with an opinion that runs contrary to a respected civil rights organization like this one. Still, a recent survey showed that 72 percent of black parents favor charter schools. For all its strengths, the NAACP does not monolithically represent the interests or opinions of its constituents on any single issue, and in this case, they seem particularly out of step.

In an ideal world, there would be no need for charters. The public school system would simply meet the needs of all of its students. Instead, we live here, now. With so much of the opportunity gap resulting from a fundamentally inequitable system, students of color and low-income students need more options that allow them to choose out of our broken system. Charter schools give those families a pathway to school choice.

The NAACP is making a political statement to block families who need change from choosing a better school for their kids, to block the further development of one budding alternative to the schools that have failed kids of color since forever. Let’s hope their next resolution is to stop playing in the sand, and to start putting kids first in every conversation about education.

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Matt Halvorson is a father and writer living Seattle, Washington. He blogs at Rise Up For Students.


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