NEA Issues Confusing Statement on Charter Schools

On July 4, 2017 the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union, issued a policy statement on charter schools.

The lengthy statement begins with the oft-repeated erroneous claim that charter schools “were initially promoted by educators who sought to innovate within the local public school system to better meet the needs of their students.” On the real origin of charter schools, see:

The Untold History of Charter Schools. April 27, 2017

Podcast: The Origin of Charter Schools. September 13, 2016

This point on the origin of charter schools is not a minor one because many sources uncritically repeat it and because it imbues the logic in the rest of the NEA’s statement.

While the NEA statement effectively highlights the many profound problems with charter schools which, properly speaking, are contract schools, it ultimately creates the impression that a charter school can be something other than a charter school, and that the real problem is unaccountable and/or privatized charter schools. In other words, charter schools can be tolerated as long as some changes are made.

Such a rendering, however, overlooks the real purpose and legal features of charter schools and why they were originally created and promoted by major owners of capital and their political representatives, not teachers and grass-roots forces. This is why, from the perspective of the rich, charter schools are not a “failed experiment.” The rich have seized tens of billions of dollars in public funds through the mechanism of charter schools.

Charter schools are contract schools, and contracting is the quintessential free market category and a main mechanism for privatization and commodification. Contract law is part of private law. This understanding is largely absent in charter school discourse. Contracting is designed specifically to remove operations, functions, funding, authority, transparency, and responsibilities from the public sphere and place them into the private sector where operational, financial, legal, and philosophical aims and standards are very different. It is worth noting that the dictionary defines “public” and “private” as the exact opposite of each other. They are distinct categories with dissimilar features and should not be confounded, as routinely happens. Properly speaking, there is really no such thing as a “public charter school.”

The NEA seems to believe that if only charter schools are authorized by locally elected members of public school boards, and if only they are held to “the same basic safeguards and standards that apply to all public schools,” then all will be well.

But charter school laws are established at the state level, and all 43 states with charter school laws explicitly and intentionally establish them as schools that can and do ignore—are meant to ignore—dozens, even hundreds, of local and state laws, rules, and regulations.

Charter school laws appeared in the neoliberal period that started around 1980 and are overtly designed by the few who control the state to produce deregulated, privatized, non-transparent, and union-free “schools” that operate outside 170-year-old traditional governance arrangements in education with little accountability. This is precisely what they are set up to do. They are not established to do something else. Besides, many, if not most, charter schools authorized by public school districts are riddled with serious problems and poor performance. There is no guarantee of “good results” just because a charter school is authorized by a public school district.

Can a charter school not be a charter school? Can charter schools serve the public interest when, right from the very beginning, they were organized by non-grass-roots forces? Is the choice between “good” charter schools and “bad” charter schools? The idea that a “good” charter school should only be authorized by a public school district and should follow all public school safeguards and standards belies an understanding of the history, purpose, and legal nature of charter schools.

Why not simply call for building, expanding, and strengthening real public schools? Why not call for full funding of all public schools and a government that puts the public interest in first place at all times and prohibits all sectarian and private claims on public schools, money, assets, and authority? Would there be a need for contract schools or so-called “parental choice” if such a modern public school system prevailed?

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.