There’s an uncomfortable war happening in inner cities throughout the country, and it’s centered around the not so simple question of how you best educate children. With private schools being out of reach for many African-American parents, the choice comes down to two different and competing systems, the traditional public school system, and the newer charter school system. Which system can education their children the best, create high achievers, and give their children the best shot at a bright future?

The latest frontline of the “public school vs. charter school baWhen 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.ttlefield is happening in the most famous African-American neighborhood in the United States, Harlem, New York.

In May, the NAACP and the United Federation of Teachers have filed a lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court trying to stop the City of New York from closing 22 public schools, but it also wants to stop the expansion of 20 charter schools. This has drawn the ire of some Harlem parents, led by Harlem charter school pioneer Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, who want charter schools expanded in New York, instead of restricted.

Currently, only 4 percent of New York City’s one million students attend charter schools, and according to a CNN report, there are 50,000 students on charter school waiting lists. However, the crux of the NAACP and Teacher’s Union lawsuit centers on accusations that at schools containing both public school students and charter school students, public school students were given unequal treatment, like different school lunch hours, and inadequate classroom accommodations.
However, the most controversial part of the lawsuit is that the NAACP has come out in support of the Teacher’s Union, which was seen by some as contrary to the needs of some African American Harlem parents who want educational choice for their children. NAACP president Ben Jealous wrote an editorial for the Washington Post explaining why the NAACP took the controversial stance.

“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.”

Beyond Harlem, this is one of the main argument public school advocates have charged against charter schools. An inequitable distribution of resources takes away from public school children, making the situation of public schools even worse.

But for inner city parents desperate to escape the generational dysfunction of many inner city schools throughout the country, they’re not interested in theories about the benefits of public education, and aren’t willing to sacrifice their children for what are increasingly being viewed as uncertain public school education.
While charter schools aren’t the panacea, and there have been mixed result as to the quality of the schools, there have been successes. The KIPP, Knowledge is Power Program, is the most famous charter school program in the country, being featured in the Academy Award winning documentary, Waiting for Superman (full disclosure, my son attends a KIPP school). Serving 27,000 students in 99 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, KIPP has been lauded as being a place where students are free of the ills of failing schools in the very neighborhoods KIPP schools are located.

For example, the KIPP schools in Los Angeles are over two hundred Academic Performance Index (API) points over their public school neighbors. KIPP and other charter schools tend to have long lists of waiting parents, desperate to leave their local public schools, and get their children into charter schools that typically have longer school hours, longer school years, and tougher academics.

But even as charter schools increasingly are an option for African-American parents, there are other obstacles. For example, many African-American parents have accused charter schools of being a form of educational colonialism, where administrators from outside the inner city community aren’t truly accountable to parents.

Unlike public schools, who are accountable to voter elected school boards, charter school board of directors are often comprised of so called ‘cocktail boards’, filled with members not part of the inner city community but are able to talk about their work with black and brown students at cocktail parties. These members often are picked not for their educational acumen, but for their ability to raise foundation monies.

Harlem has long been a symbol of black America, and now it is a microcosm of the painful choices African-American parents need to make. Do they put their children in public schools, or do they take a chance on charter schools?

The NAACP position since its founding has been to be an advocate for quality public education, with the Brown vs Board of Education decision leading to the deconstruction of segregated schools, but the evolving realities of charter schools, and the desires of many African American parents for educational choice, may mean that the NAACP may have to expand its notion of what is a quality educational choice.