Charter schools vs. civil rights

By Julian Vasquez Heilig

Tribune News Service

Make no mistake: There is a civil war going on in the black community.

On one side are charter-school operators, foundations run by billionaires and school- choice movement leaders who support the private control of public schools as envisioned by economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s. On the other side are parents, students and community members who are demanding true equity and democracy in our public schools.

National civil rights organizations are divided over this issue. The National Urban League, United Negro College Fund and other civil rights groups have aligned themselves with market-based school-choice proponents. On the other side, the NAACP has passed three national resolutions critical of charter schools over the past six years. The Black Lives Matter coalition, our nation’s newest national civil-rights umbrella group, released a platform of policy demands critical of charter schools this past summer.

Both sides claim to be representing the interests of black children who have been left behind. In September, charter- school owners and their supporters released a letter saying they represent the interests of tens of thousands of black students and bemoaning the NAACP’s most recent resolution criticizing charter schools.

Market-based school-choice proponents promote privately operated schools as the fix for the education of poor children. In contrast, the Journey for Justice Alliance – an umbrella organization of many social-justice groups – believes the conversation should be refocused on inequality. In its platform, Journey for Justice cites lack of equity in public schools as the “major failure of the American education system.”


The Alliance calls for a moratorium on school privatization. That is also the NAACP’s position in a 2016 national convention resolution that seeks a moratorium on new privately operated charter schools.

Over the past two decades, the U.S. Department of Education has spent billions of taxpayer dollars on these private charter schools, with very little to show for it. The alternative vision presented by the Alliance includes 10,000 sustainable community schools.

In addition, the Alliance and NAACP are seeking an end to zero-tolerance discipline policies. They cite school discipline research by the UCLA Civil Rights Project that found charter schools are even worse than traditional public schools for black and brown students. The Alliance also wants to end mayoral school takeovers and appointed school boards and the overuse of standardized tests to justify school takeovers.

Alliance members held a big protest outside the first presidential debate to focus attention on the crisis in our schools. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did not have much to say on the subject. But equal access to education is a crucial to our democracy, to the American ideal of equal opportunity, and to civil rights.

Julian Vasquez Heilig is a professor at California State University Sacramento. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.