Op-Ed: Why the NAACP is Suing the NYC Department of Education

Originally published in The Washington Post

For 102 years, the NAACP has fought to ensure that all our children have access to high-quality public education. Our founders made improving education our primary strategy for improving America. They did so because they knew from experience that educational inequities are not only the product of broader inequalities and dangerous social tensions but also maintain them.

We believe that if we make all our schools great places to learn, we will have more than better institutions and better-prepared students — we will have a better country.

Toward this end, we filed a lawsuit last month on behalf of New York City’s public schoolchildren and their parents.

 The NAACP has a long history in New York. One hundred years ago this month, our first local branch in the nation was founded in Harlem. Since then, thousands upon thousands of New York students, parents and grandparents have volunteered with the NAACP to end the mistreatment of schoolchildren.

This lawsuit was filed for the most common reasons we have sued boards of education across the decades: Students are being grossly mistreated, their parents are being deeply disrespected and the entire community stands to suffer.

There are two issues we are particularly concerned about.

First, the city has located charter schools under the same roofs as traditional public schools in a way that is unfair and unjust. Their poor handling has led to many complaints from our members and their neighbors, including:

  • Students in the traditional public school must now eat lunch at 10 a.m. so that charter school students can enjoy lunch at noon.
  •   The “regular school’s children” had library access for a little over four hours so that the “new charter school’s kids” could have access for almost seven.
  •  Traditional school students” were moved to a basement, where they were next to the boiler room, to make room for their charter school peers, and teachers of the regular students were forced to teach in the halls due to lack of space.

We are asking that the court require the city to follow state law and handle these shared space situations equitably.

Second, inequitable co-locations exacerbate the problem created by the city’s persistent failure to follow the law and engage parents before making major changes. New York state law requires the city to involve parents before announcing its intention to shut down a school or make way for a charter to share a school’s space.

We filed suit against the city in February 2010. New York City’s Department of Education lost the case in March 2010 and lost its appeal in July 2010. Yet it continued to close schools without regard for the law or a court order enforcing the law. The lawsuit we filed last month asks the court to enforce its judgment requiring the city to collaborate with communities on efforts to support and improve local schools before it shuts them — something the city has failed to do time and again.

The city’s actions impede learning, increase tensions among students and tear at the fabric of communities. When one set of students is perceived as getting preferential treatment over another, or the city refuses to work with parents to fix problems at a school before closing it, the inequity leaves all our children suffering.

Some have criticized the NAACP for joining the teachers union in this cause. Unable to refute the facts of our case, these critics question our motives, apparently also unable to comprehend that we are independent actors.

We have always been clear that just as we praise teachers for dedicating their lives to a heroic profession, we have no tolerance for bad teachers or bad schools. To spur the changes needed to help students succeed, we even stood with many of these critics when a Rhode Island district fired all the teachers at Central Falls High School.

For a century, the NAACP has practiced the maxim that Shirley Chisholm often reminded us of: There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests. In this case, as with our past education cases, our permanent interest is clear: High-quality public education for all children and a stronger nation for us all.