I am a lifelong member of the NAACP. I know how much we have all benefitted from its leadership, sacrifice and integrity.
It is with utmost respect, then, that on behalf of so many other NAACP members and supporters, I make this plea:
On school choice, it is time for the NAACP to lay down its arms.
More urgently, it is time for the Florida chapter to withdraw from a lawsuit that seeks to end the Florida tax credit scholarship, a 15-year-old choice program that is helping tens of thousands of our children.
In 2014, the Florida teachers’ union, the Florida NAACP and other groups filed suit to end the scholarship. The union spins the program as “controversial.” But all it does is allow low-income parents to do what parents with more money do without controversy: access schools that work best for their children.
The scholarship is a national model. It is serving 78,000 children in 1,600 private schools — schools they would not have been able to attend otherwise. Two-thirds are black or Hispanic. Their average family income is about $25,000 a year for a household of four.
Years of test data show these students were the ones who struggled the most in public schools, but once in schools their parents choose, they make solid progress. Studies show us public schools are not financially harmed, and that public school students benefit from the competition.
The scholarship should be applauded, not sued. Yet lawyers for low-income parents were in a Tallahassee courtroom recently defending the program in Round 2 of the legal battle. If the suit succeeds — and ultimately it may be the Florida Supreme Court that decides — their children will be returned to schools where they were failing.
It is hard to fathom such a scenario a half century after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, but it could happen. It is also hard to imagine the NAACP being part of it. I can only assume it has been swayed by the smoke screens of misinformation about the program and by misperceptions about choice supporters.
We don’t see school choice as an attack on public schools. We see it as a complement to them. We don’t see an attempt to privatize, but to level playing fields. We don’t see a ploy to divide and resegregate. We see a tool for social justice that offers real hope and opportunity to those who need it most.
We also see a threat to other vital programs. Does the NAACP realize the same arguments made in its suit could be used to terminate Florida’s voluntary Pre-K program, which pays pre-school tuition at many black churches? And the Bright Futures scholarship, which pays tuition at three of Florida’s faith-based, historically black colleges?
Support for the tax credit scholarship program is deep and diverse. That’s why in 2010, nearly half of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus voted to expand the program. That’s why in January, 10,000 people rallied in Tallahassee to hear Martin Luther King III chant, “Drop the suit!” That’s why, in just two months, 5,000 people signed petitions urging the NAACP to do likewise, including more than 100 the state’s leading black ministers — members of the Florida African American Ministers Alliance For Parental Choice, which we formed because we know how much these scholarships mean to our parents and communities.
This movement isn’t limited to Florida. In Washington D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, an African-American Democrat, backs a federal bill to continue that city’s school voucher program. In Maryland a few weeks ago, the Democrat-led General Assembly, spurred by black lawmakers from Baltimore, passed that state’s first voucher. They are responding to the wishes and needs of black parents.
On this one issue, on expanding educational options, our parents are leading, and it’s time the NAACP joined them. The struggle for educational freedom is at the heart of the black experience in America. The NAACP, our fearless friend, has been on the right side of that struggle for 107 years.
There is no reason it can’t continue to be.
Mark Coats is pastor of Grace of God Baptist Church in Miami, which is affiliated with Grace Christian Preparatory School.