is a Democratic state senator from Philadelphia who ran for governor this year on a platform that included universal school choice
I was raised to revere the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As a child, I learned of its legendary achievements in fighting against the oppression of the human spirit and removing the barriers of segregation and racial discrimination. The organization's recent involvement in controversies surrounding Shirley Sherrod and the tea party, however, indicates a shift away from its core values. Today, the long-revered civil rights group seems more concerned about public relations, political positioning, and currying interest-group favor than providing a voice to the voiceless. Nowhere is this transformation more evident, or troubling, than in the area of education.
Whenever the NAACP is mentioned, one immediately thinks of Brown v. Board of Education, the historic civil rights case the NAACP argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. With Brown, the NAACP helped to end legally segregated public schools and overturned the racist policy of "separate but equal." Unfortunately, the mission of the NAACP to protect equal access to quality public education has changed. At least it seemed that way to me as I read the Wall Street Journal article "Failing Schools Can Stay Open" on July 1, which described the NAACP's lawsuit to force New York City to keep open 19 failing public schools.
As a Pennsylvania state senator representing a district with failing schools, I have seen thousands of children deprived of a quality education. Only 10 percent of the children who enter Philadelphia's ninth grade go on to graduate college. In this country an African American male who drops out of high school is more likely than not to serve time in prison.
Poor education is not a matter of money. In Philadelphia, we spend more than $400,000 per classroom of 25 students. The problem is a system that chooses to keep low-income children segregated in failing schools in order to protect the jobs of the adults who operate those failing schools. The NAACP sacrifices the futures of tens of thousands of children by suing to keep failing schools open. Is the New York case an aberration? Apparently not.
In Florida, the NAACP joined with teachers unions to force the discontinuance of the country's first statewide school-voucher program, which helped low-income children attending chronically failing schools gain access to better schools.
In March, the NAACP, siding with the teachers union, lobbied the U.S. Senate to close Washington's successful opportunity scholarship-voucher program, stranding 1,700 low-income children in some of the country's worst public schools.
To date, the NAACP has remained silent on a bill I introduced that would provide students in low-performing schools with scholarships to higher-quality schools. The legislation is awaiting a vote in the education committee.
The NAACP's mission, as stated in its constitution, is to ensure the political, educational, and socioeconomic equity rights of all people. So its abandonment of children creates a paralyzing moment full of confusion and betrayal.
Failing schools disproportionately occupied by children of color most certainly are NOT equal.
How can the same organization that sent a young, brilliant, future Supreme Court justice by the name of Thurgood Marshall to Washington to eradicate "separate but equal" from the public education system today send its best and brightest to argue for the preservation of schools that continually fail our poorest, most powerless children?
How can the organization that liberated the powerless to speak truth to power today claim victory in a lawsuit that stands in stark contrast to its expressed mission, its constitution, and Justice Marshall's legacy?
How cruel the past 56 years since Brown have been to present this paradoxical moment. The new NAACP, in fighting for failing schools and against the children forced to attend them, in reality fights to preserve the "separate and unequal" reality of today's public education system. I long for the "old" NAACP that abided by Marshall's words:
"I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust . . . We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better."
Chat live with Sen. Anthony Williams Monday at
1 p.m. at www.philly.com