Impossible to Regulate Deregulated Charter Schools

Regulations have to do with what is allowed and what is not allowed. They establish what an individual, organization, or business can or cannot do. Regulations shape behaviors, actions, conduct, aims, and outcomes.

Regulations are often used in self-serving ways by different factions of the rich to benefit themselves while disadvantaging other wealthy competitors. Those with the most political-economic power hold sway and fashion regulations as they alone see fit. As in other spheres of capitalist life, “might makes right.” Power, not reason or principles, dominates affairs. The main point is that regulations, like laws and policies, are always political. They have a class character to them. Regulations are not neutral or above class interests because we do not live in a classless society.

The main question is who is creating or eliminating regulations and for what aims? The key issue is not whether regulations are “good” or “bad”, per se, or how many or how few there are, but which one of the two major classes in society do they serve? Regulations are a tool of class warfare. There is a big difference, for example, between capital-centered regulations verses human-centered regulations. The former serve the wealthy few who dominate society while the latter serve the common good.

Regulations and regulators have, of course, frequently failed to block many “bad behaviors” and problems. Regulation does not always work. Regulation does not automatically guarantee quality or progress. A major example of the failure of regulations and regulators is the Wall Street engineered economic crash of 2008 that has left most economies in awful shape for the last 10 years—with no real and sustainable improvement in sight. Indeed, it appears that there is no returning to even substandard pre-2008 economic levels. Multiple regulatory agencies that have been around for decades did not prevent this still-unfolding economic catastrophe that the mainstream media keeps trying to downplay.

In today’s context, having no regulations (deregulation) guarantees chaos, anarchy, and violence—key features of the “free market.” A rules-free environment ensures that only the “strongest” and “fittest” “survive” within the “free market” while the majority keeps losing. Deregulation has little to do with “accountability,” “innovation,” or prosperity and security for all.

Since the late 1970s deregulation has been a major feature of the neoliberal antisocial offensive of the rich to counter the inevitable falling rate of profit under capitalism. Governments at home and abroad have been wreaking havoc in their societies as a result of phony austerity agendas launched to save the rich. Deregulation goes hand in hand with privatization, a major form of which is contracting. Deregulating public agencies and enterprises (e.g., education) allows for greater privatization, often through contracting and public-private “partnerships.” This capital-centered arrangement always increases the wealth of private interests and diminishes the wealth of the public. It is not a “win-win” situation.

Neoliberal ideology insists that the rich not be constrained or regulated in any way. The rich should face no barriers according to neoliberal ideology because that would be akin to curbing their “freedom” to operate as they please. Indeed, it is virtuous to empower the egocentric rich to claim and accumulate as much wealth as possible at the expense of all.

Charter schools are deregulated marketized schools by design.

Privately-operated but publicly-funded charter schools are exempt from dozens, even hundreds, of regulations governing public schools. In Ohio, for example, charter schools are exempt from 200 state laws governing public schools.1 President Bill Clinton, an avid supporter of charter schools, once casually described charter schools as “schools with no rules.” This is a major reason why charter schools are nothing like (regulated) public schools. It is a key reason why charter schools are plagued by extensive fraud, waste, corruption, and racketeering. It is why charter schools are deunionized, unstable, and operate according to lower standards while marketing themselves as superior to under-funded, over-tested, and constantly-demonized public schools. It is not surprising that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 1,000 charter schools closed just between 2011-2015.2 Financial malfeasance is the main reason charter schools close but weak academic performance is also widespread and persistent. Charter authorizing bodies, the entities that supposedly oversee charter schools, have had very little impact in ensuring high standards and quality in this nonpublic sector. They even admit as much in their own literature.

But we often hear from certain quarters—usually from liberals, democrats, progressives, lefties, and social justice advocates—that having more regulations or “sensible regulations” for charter schools will “reign them in” and make them more stable, ethical, non-criminal, non-scandalous, accountable, transparent, and effective. In other words, charter schools are disastrous mainly because they are (too) deregulated. Having some regulations will supposedly fix things. This is also another way of covertly saying that charter schools are somehow fundamentally acceptable and all that is needed are some refinements.

But the illusion that having better or more regulations for charter schools will improve charter schools is naïve and misses the point altogether. Similar fantasies are entertained when people talk about replacing “bad policies” with “good policies.” Such prejudice rests on the fiction that regulations and policies are simply a matter of “good advice,” “choice,” “free will,” “technical expertise,” or “based on the benevolence of policy makers.” In other words, regulations, laws, and policies are treated as if they are independent of politics and social class relations and all that is really needed are “smarter arguments,” “better information,” “more persuasion,” and “more ethical policymakers” if we want better regulations and institutions. But “smarter arguments,” “more knowledge,” “better logic,” or “more progressive policymakers” are useless when ignoring the unbreakable connection between politics and economics. Regulations are not made outside class relations and should not be psychologized or individualized. Regulations embody class interests.

The rich and their political representatives have consciously, patiently, energetically, and deliberately fashioned charter schools as deregulated arrangements so as to fortify their private empires. They know exactly what they are doing and they are not beholden to the public interest. If they had wanted something else, they would have created something else. Charter schools are deregulated by conscious class design. Deregulated deunionized charter schools, now legal in 44 states, Washington, DC., Puerto Rico, and Guam, are not an accident, the result of short-sighted thinking, based on poor decisions, or due to inadequate evidence. The crimes and problems caused by deregulated privatized education arrangements are the direct product of carefully-crafted capital-centered legislation. Charter schools are doing exactly what the rich want them to do. If the rich needed regulated charter schools, then they would have created regulated charter schools. They specifically want something other than regulated public schools. They desire something that operates outside the long-standing regulatory framework governing traditional public schools. Attempts to regulate charter schools will not be tolerated by the rich and their retinue.

In this period of economic decay and parasitism, the narrow needs of the rich necessitate deregulated, unaccountable, marketized schools that annually siphon billions of dollars in public funds from public schools. The rich are constantly striving to maximize profit as fast as possible to satisfy their unlimited greed in the context of a continually failing economy, and they will not let the general interests of society get in their way. For them, deregulated marketized education arrangements that funnel a breath-taking amount of social wealth into their pockets every year are wise schemes that should be multiplied. Regulating charter schools would mean the loss of an enormous amount of social wealth for them.

Because they are marketized arrangements based on the ideologies of competition, choice, and consumerism, attempting to regulate charter schools is as meaningless as attempting to regulate the so-called “free market.” Charter schools reflect the triumph of capital-centered non-accountability, so-called “market accountability,” over human-centered accountability. Major owners of capital want no regulations or human-centered standards governing transparency, standards, obligations, accountability, and results. They want free reign to get as rich as possible as fast as possible. This is precisely what “letting the market decide” means. “Entrepreneurial enterprise” requires a “hands-off” approach. No regulations. No constraints. Just fast and easy access to public funds, assets, and authority to avoid the falling rate of profit endemic to capitalism.

Just as a capitalist cannot stop being a capitalist, so too a charter school cannot be something other than a charter school. Deregulated unaccountable charter schools will remain deregulated and unaccountable. The comedian Chris Rock, commenting once on how a “trained” circus lion killed its long-time trainer during a circus performance, said the lion will always be a wild animal that can become violent and deadly at any moment. All the training in the world cannot change this core feature of a wild animal like the lion. A lion is a lion, not something else.

The main problem confronting the polity is how to deprive the ruling elite of their ability to deprive us of our ability to govern and decide the affairs of society, including every aspect of education. Education, healthcare, welfare, the economy, and more must be under public control and not treated as a commodity so as to benefit the rich.

  1. Boychuk, B., & Mathis, J. (2013, October 24). Debate: Are charter schools a legitimate alternative to public education? Newsday. []
  2. Zais, M. M. (2018). Nationwide audit of oversight of closed charter schools, U.S. Department of Education. []
Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.