Are Charter Schools the Answer to Inequality in Public Education?

“Charter school” … what comes to mind when these words are uttered?

According to the National Education Association (NEA), a charter school is “a primary or secondary school that receives public money but is not subject to some of the rules, regulations and statutes that apply to public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school’s charter.”

Parents of color are encouraged to believe that charter schools are the panacea to the obstacles their children face due to institutional racism and underfunding in the public schools. But are charter schools truly the answer to inequality in schools? No! The truth must be exposed to stop these for-profit organizations.

Two-tier Education, Union-busting, Lower Living Standards

Charter schools actually hinder the development of students of color in several ways, while at the same time eroding the quality of public education.

First, they increase classroom segregation by race. In 2010, the UCLA Civil Rights Project released a study showing that 7 of ten Black charter school students attend schools with extremely low numbers of white students. It also found that 32 percent of charter school students are Black — twice the percentage as in public schools.

These schools aggravate other kinds of segregation as well. They gain access to lists of high-achieving students and poach them from public schools. They cherry-pick their students with a restrictive enrollment application and are legally allowed to reject students with special needs: those with physical or cognitive disabilities, for example, or English language learners. What’s even more appalling is that this exclusion is done with taxpayers’ money! Publicly funded schools should be required to serve the needs of all children — not just the ones with the best chance of success.

Charters are also the trigger for union-busting. Teachers’ unions, longtime defenders of quality schools, have to be silenced in order for public schools to be closed and replaced with charters. Most charter school teachers have no union representation and can be terminated for any reason as long as the decision is not based illegally on a characteristic like age, race or sex.

Imagine working under that kind of pressure with 40 students or more in a classroom! This helps to explain why the average teacher in a charter school works there for less than five years.

Public school teachers are required to have earned a bachelor’s degree and gone through a student teaching program. Charter school teachers are not. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the NEA are two unions that were created to ensure that educators would have rights as professionals, health benefits, and wages above the minimum.

Children will suffer and the living standards of U.S. workers will drop if the teachers’ unions are broken and a two-tier educational system takes hold.

Education for the masses!

Originally, freed slaves — defying threats to their lives — established the public education system in the South as a tool to empower disenfranchised African Americans and to create equal educational opportunities for all people. I vehemently defend public education because I, myself, am a successful product of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public school system in the nation!

With encouragement from my family and some very hard-working, dedicated teachers, I beat the odds in spite of my humble beginnings.

Had charter schools been around when I was growing up, I would not have been able to attend due to their selective rules. Many require a minimum of two hours per week of on-site parent volunteer service. That would have eliminated me because my dad worked two jobs to support the family. Charters also often require that parents provide lunch daily for their children. Once again I would have been excluded. And the uniform requirement?! I again would have been left out; my mom sewed my clothes because there was no money to buy them.

Would I have been missing out on a stellar education? Probably not.

In 2009, the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (Stanford University) presented a study comparing charter schools and public schools. Charter schools outperformed public schools only about 17 percent of the time. Nearly 46 percent of charter schools are on par with public schools. However, about 37 percent of charters are rated academically lower. Other factors being fairly equal, how is it possible to start with the “cream of the crop” and yet produce sour milk more than a third of the time?!

Charter schools have sprung up rapidly in New Orleans, New York, Georgia, California, and elsewhere. We need to fight against this destructive wave of ineptitude that charter schools have initiated.

Antidote: United Defense of Public Education

Quality public schools can be an effective road out of a cycle of poverty. They can reduce social inequality, help youngsters achieve their potential, and provide good union jobs for people who care about children. So, how do we fight for them?

Our unions must once again strive to build solidarity with the community — where parents of color are often in the lead. We can also take a giant step in fighting back by participating in ongoing campaigns.

As I write, one immediately upcoming opportunity will present itself July 28-31 in Washington, D.C., where Save Our Schools (SOS) is holding a several-day conference and organizing a march. SOS demands include equitable funding for all public school communities; an end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation; teacher, family, and community leadership in forming public education policies; and curriculum developed for, and by, local school communities.

As the famous and deservedly popular anti-war slogan has it, “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need, and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber!”

•  This article first appeared at Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 32, No. 4, August-September, 2011


Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Lillian Thompson is an African American elementary school teacher and fighter for bilingual education. Read other articles by Lillian.