This past week the NAACP, the National Urban League and other civil-rights groups collectively condemned charter schools. Claiming to speak for minority Americans, the organizations expressed "reservations" about the Obama administration's "extensive reliance on charter schools." They specifically voiced concern about "the overrepresentation of charter schools in low-income and predominantly minority communities."
Someone should remind these leaders who they represent. The truth is that support for charters among ordinary African-Americans and Hispanics is strong and has only increased dramatically in the past two years. Opposition along the lines expressed by the NAACP and the Urban League is articulated by a small minority.
We know this because we've asked. For the past four years, Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance, together with the journal Education Next, has surveyed a nationally representative cross-section of some 3,000 Americans about a variety of education policy issues. In 2010, we included extra samples of public-school teachers and all those living in zip codes where a charter school is located.
Each year we provided respondents the same, neutral description of charter schools, followed by the question: "Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools?" Those interviewed were also given the choice of saying they "neither support or oppose" charters.
Support for charters among African Americans rose to 49% in 2009, up from 42% in 2008. This year it leapt upward to no less than 64%. Among Hispanics support jumped to 47% in 2010, from 37% in 2008.
Opposition to charters is expressed by 14% of African-Americans and 21% of Hispanics. Twenty-three percent of African-Americans and 33% of Hispanics take a neutral position.
Among the public as a whole, charter supporters currently outnumber opponents by a margin of better than 2 to 1. Forty-four percent say they are in favor of charters, while 19% stand in opposition. Parents in general are even more supportive of charter schools: 51% like them, 15% don't.
The NAACP and its sister organizations are correct that charters are "overrepresented" in minority communities. But they neglected to find out what parents in those communities actually think about that fact. As it turns out, parents in communities with charter schools favor them by a margin of 57% to 16%.
Meanwhile, charter support among public school teachers has slipped to 39% in 2010, from 47% in 2008. Teachers unions know how to mobilize their constituency.
The same cannot be said for the NAACP. It's time civil-rights groups listened to their communities.
Education reform has emerged as a wedge issue for the Democratic Party. Teachers unions are becoming increasingly pointed in their attack on Education Secretary Arne Duncan's efforts to promote charters. Meanwhile, Democrats for Education Reform, a renegade group supporting charters and other school reforms, has gained surprising influence at the highest levels of the Obama administration.
"We should set high expectations" for charter schools, Mr. Duncan told the National Urban League convention last Wednesday, and "if they don't meet those expectations we should close them down. But to suggest that somehow charters are bad for low-income and minority students is absolutely wrong."
And there's no sign of distance between Mr. Duncan and President Obama on the issue: "There should be a fuss if Arne Duncan wasn't trying to shake things up," he told the Urban League the next day.
By casting their lot firmly with teachers unions, the leadership of the NAACP and the Urban League hope to preserve their power and safeguard their traditional sources of financial support. Not only is this is a cynical strategy, it ignores where African-Americans and Hispanics are on the issue. Thankfully, the Obama administration is paying attention to the needs of low-income, minority communities and not to their purported leaders.