Main Charter School Myth Promoted By “Progressives”

People who call themselves “democrats,” “lefties,” “progressives,” or “social justice advocates” are becoming increasingly critical of and rejecting charter schools. This is a positive development.

But quite a few “democrats,” “lefties,” “progressives, and “social justice advocates” remain victims of several harmful myths about charter schools.

Perhaps the main charter school myth perpetuated by “democrats,” “lefties,” “progressives,” and “social justice advocates” goes something like this: “charter schools are terrible for 50 reasons, but they had progressive, noble, democratic origins and were never meant to become the terrible arrangements that they have become.” In other words, charter schools started out as a positive grass-roots effort for school improvement but were hijacked somewhere along the way and turned into horrible things with endless problems that benefit mainly major owners of capital. Different owners of capital have, according to this view, usurped the charter school movement to serve their narrow profit-maximizing aims, thereby perverting and sabotaging the “true” intent and promise of charter schools. If only the self-serving wealthy saboteurs of the charter school movement were not part of the equation, if only they had not polluted an otherwise promising educational “experiment” and “innovation,” then charter schools could have delivered on their original progressive vision, promise, and hope—and so much controversy and criticism could have been avoided.

This fairy tale may, in fact, be one of the most nagging, dogmatic, and entrenched narratives repeated by “democrats,” “lefties,” “progressives,” and “social justice advocates.” It refuses to die. It is impervious to logic, facts, and analysis, which speaks volumes.

In September 2018, The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools produced an informative and useful report titled Confronting the Education Debt. The report underscores the many ways that the system is rigged to further enrich the wealthy few while also depriving schools and students of tens of billions of dollars in public funds and resources. It specifically highlights how privatization of public schools has harmed public schools and students. It recognizes that, “The movement to privatize public schools is a deliberate strategy to throw open the ‘education marketplace’ to private interests.” It also states that, “the privatization of schools has contributed to austerity conditions in traditional public schools.” No doubt, charter schools are making things worse for many poor, low-income, and minority students, inside and outside charter schools. To be sure, the phony austerity agenda of the financial oligarchy has been wreaking havoc in all sectors and institutions for forty years.

Unfortunately, The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools openly and explicitly repeats the tired fiction that, “Charter schooling did not begin as a privatization strategy.” This is not a drive-by statement. It is not a casual or flippant assertion. As noted above, it is something many, if not most, “democrats,” “lefties,” “progressives,” “social justice advocates” faithfully repeat.

Research and investigation have shown, however, that charter schooling started out precisely as a deliberate calculated top-down policy for school privatization. Charter schooling was never a grass-roots pro-public phenomenon. Its origins were never humble and never served the public interest. Charter schools were conceived and created by many individuals and organizations with large amounts of economic, political, cultural, and educational capital. Average, ordinary, everyday people were nowhere around at the inception of charter schools. This has been documented by myself and others,1 including by the architects of charter schools themselves.2

At the end of the day, however, none of this may really matter. This point may be moot. As endless nauseating news and scholarly reports show year after year, charter schools, which continue to multiply, are incapable of escaping scandals, crimes, and other unethical practices. They are imploding in many states.

As more students, parents, teachers, principals, school boards, teacher educators, and legislators become more aware and intolerant of the endless problems with charter schools, and as they begin to develop a broad, independent, and coherent outlook on the dangers of privatization, charter school supporters will become more irrational, defiant, and truculent. They have powerful financial incentives to oppose the public interest and expand charter schools with impunity. However, this does not mean they will prevail in the long-run. Wealthy private interests can be defeated.

  1. See Charter School Report Card (2016) by Shawgi Tell and The Untold History of Charter Schools (2017) by Rachel Cohen in Democracy Journal []
  2. Junge, E. R. (2012). Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story. Minnesota: Beaver’s ond Press. []
Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.