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Thoughts On Being Black, Proud And In Support Of School Choice

The NAACP's resolution to issue a moratorium on charter schools assumes (wrongly) that black folks are a monolith.

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In ratifying a resolution to issue a moratorium on charter schools, the NAACP - despite its storied history of defending the civil rights of black and brown people in America - has made the same mistake that the majority has made about us for years: Assuming (wrongly) that black folks are a monolith. But I’m here to let you know:

You can be black.  You can be proud.  And you can be in support of school choice.

Full disclosure: I currently serve as the Connecticut State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, an organization that advocates in favor of and supports the high-quality charter school movement in New York and Connecticut. 

But this is bigger than charter schools. It’s about something much more fundamental to the black experience in America, and that’s the power to choose instead of just taking whatever’s given. We use that choice to rise up.

The charter school narrative has come full circle for me throughout my life and career as an advocate for social justice. As the grandson of not one, but two grandmothers who worked as educators in the traditional public school system, I was also once a part of the anti-charter cacophony. 

From leading racial justice work in New Jersey with the American Civil Liberties Union to serving as Commissioner for the Elizabeth, New Jersey School Board, and even serving as one of the youngest NAACP branch presidents at that time, the systematic rejection of charter schools had become so deeply embedded in me, it was all I knew to be true.

But in time, I gained more exposure to charter schools. In meeting students and their families, I saw the magic happening in that space. I saw children from some of New Jersey’s most historically underserved districts gaining experiences I’d never seen in a district school.

I began to see charter schools as a vehicle through which communities of color could take back education. I saw schools founded by black parents and black-led community organizations. I realized that in their purest form, these schools were determined to enrich the lives of kids who looked just like me.

These schools - and these families - deserve our support and our understanding, not judgment and dismissal based on misinformation and flat-out agenda-driven lies.

It is regrettable that the NAACP didn’t take the time to research the true impact of charter schools in the communities they care about. If they had, they too would have realized that issuing a moratorium holds back the very children and communities they claim to be protecting.

The NAACP says in its mission statement that it aims to “ensure a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race.” How then, can they throw their support behind a resolution that would strip away the rights of millions of black families to exercise choice when selecting a school for their children?

Black voters have spoken, and they overwhelmingly support having a choice when seeking high-quality education for their children. A 2015 study from the Black Alliance for Educational Options found that of voters polled in four states, the overwhelming majority supported some form of high-quality educational options, including more than half from each state in support of charter schools.

In their disappointing decision, the NAACP has proven they are more comfortable toying with the future of millions of children of color and ignoring their families’ demands than they are with rocking the proverbial boat of their lucrative affiliation with the status quo.

No doubt, we have a lot to thank the NAACP for. This is the same organization that brought us victories like Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

That was a long time ago. I have a hard time thinking the NAACP leaders of those days would recognize what their successors have done.

Today’s NAACP benefits from cash that comes from large and powerful unions -- most notably the teacher unions that without fail are trying to deny black and brown families the benefits of school choice. 

Yes, once upon a time these same labor unions helped black and brown Americans secure good paying jobs and elevate to the middle class. The NAACP had a vested interest in keeping them happy.

But we are living in different times. Right now, we're seeing a tremendous change in our country. And now more than ever, we need organizations like the NAACP to stand up for issues like educational justice for communities of color.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric coming from today’s NAACP is wrought with misinformation right out of the teacher union anti-charter playbook. These myths about charters have long since been debunked. 

I am disappointed and disheartened that our nation’s oldest civil rights organization has taken to demonizing charter schools. What’s worse, a group I revered now discredits and insults millions of black families and educators whose lives have benefitted from having school choice.

Make no mistake: Charter schools are not a one-size-fits-all solution. And not all are great.

But if the NAACP truly believes, as it should, that education is the great equalizer, why would they tell our families they should have no choices at all? Why would they tell black and brown families who want options – who want the power to choose – that they must accept what’s given them, however unsatisfactory?

I have seen high-performing charter schools - many conceived, launched and managed by people of color - making a difference in children’s lives.

We’re not investing in institutions. We’ve investing in children’s lives.

As James Baldwin once said, “we can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The NAACP and school choice advocates may never quite see eye-to-eye. But the fact remains that the house is burning and children need to be rescued right now. Each year our children are denied access to a school of quality is yet another roadblock in the way of them reaching their full potential. Of rising up. Of exercising power over their own lives.

Make no mistake, I support good schools, especially ones that are meeting the needs of low-income children of color, be they district, charter, or otherwise.  And I won’t apologize for being black and proud and standing in support of educating our children by any means necessary.

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Jeremiah Grace is the Connecticut State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, the membership and advocacy organization for Connecticut and New York charter schools. With two decades of political involvement and activism, Jeremiah’s support of school choice is rooted in his lifelong ministry as an advocate for social justice. Jeremiah previously served as National Regional Director for Project Vote, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey’s Racial Justice program, and is a former member of the Elizabeth Board of Education in Elizabeth, NJ -- the youngest Commissioner ever elected to that board.