Charter School Promoters Criticize and Complain About Charter Schools While Pushing For More Charter Schools

The narrow aim of maximizing profit as fast as possible compels owners of capital to say and do whatever they have to to get richer, no matter how irrational and contradictory, and no matter the cost to society and the environment. Such an aim is irresponsible and outdated, and needs to be replaced by a human-centered aim that recognizes the need for a modern economy controlled by the working class and people themselves.

The key distinction between class will and personal will is critical to appreciate here because it cuts through persistent confusion surrounding why major owners of capital do what they do. Individuals are not the only ones with a will. Social classes, as objective phenomena, also have their own will and dynamics. Focusing only on personal whims and intentions limits comprehension of social phenomena.

Capital is first and foremost an unequal social relationship, not a person or a thing. Major owners of capital are the personification of capital, the embodiment of capital, also known as capital personified or capital incarnate.

This theoretical insight is critical because it takes us away from the rabbit hole of personal intentions and personal will, and allows us instead to objectively locate greed, insecurity, inequality, poverty, unemployment, and other problems in the intrinsic built-in nature, logic, and movement of capital itself. Recognizing and grasping this shift from personal intentions to the internal core dynamics of capital itself is priceless.

In short, the concept of individuals as the personification of economic categories helps us move beyond an individual’s personal ambitions and understand the bigger, broader, deeper reasons for unequal relations in society, that is, the structure of social relations under capital.

As agents of capital, as bearers of specific class interests, major owners of capital cannot exist without constantly amassing socially-produced wealth. The singular aim of capital is to accumulate as much wealth as rapidly as possible, ((This understanding of social relations comes from political economy, the “red pill” of the social sciences. (In the 1999 science fiction action film The Matrix, the “blue pill” represents the accepted, dominant, taken-for-granted “truths” and norms of society; i.e., blissful ignorance, while the “red pill” represents the brutal truths of reality.)) no matter how irrational and harmful the consequences are to the common good. Owners of capital will quickly go out of business if they fail to out-compete and out-profit other owners of capital.

A violent dog-eat-dog world is not a mirage.

Charter Schools Conceived, Organized, and Imposed by the Rich

Charter schools were conceived, organized, and promoted with impunity by wealthy individuals, organizations, and corporations, not grass-roots forces, more than 30 years ago. The idea of chartering was discussed even before then. It is no accident that since their inception fewer than three percent of charter schools have been started, controlled, or operated by actual teachers themselves. Charter schools were never about empowering teachers and developing “innovative” curriculum and instruction to promote student success. That’s a worn-out fairy tale. The rich and their representatives have always been the main shakers and movers behind privately-operated contract schools. And they are even more so today. The rich did not show up after charter schools appeared and then hijack charter schools for their own narrow needs; they themselves are the architects of charter schools in the United States.

A continually falling rate of profit under capitalism, especially in the neoliberal period which started in the late 1970s, has forced major owners of capital to parasitically funnel public funds and assets to themselves through diverse pay-the-rich schemes. In education, the main such scheme is charter schools. As a result, billions of public school dollars and billions of dollars’ worth of public school facilities have been seized over the years by private charter school owners-operators. Privatization necessarily results in higher costs, more corruption, more inefficiency, and lower quality service.

Hypocrisy of Charter School Advocates

Prominent charter school supporters and promoters sometimes have to criticize charter schools because there are so many serious glaring problems to criticize. Not saying anything would look, feel, and sound incongruent and strange. Facts are, after all, stubborn things. It is difficult to bury all of reality. Sometimes, fortunately, no amount of fantasy or disinformation works. Anticonsciousness is not permanent.

But despite their complaints and criticisms of profound problems in the unaccountable, unstable, segregated charter school sector, well-known charter school advocates and ideologues keep energetically pushing for more charter schools, further harming education, society, the economy, and the national interest.

Below is a pocket-sized sample of damning and indicting statements made by long-time prominent unrelenting supporters of charter schools, as well as a powerful statement from a not so well-known individual who used to blindly support these pay-the-rich schemes but no longer does.

Margaret “Macke” Raymond

Even though she has spent years documenting many problems with charter schools, Dr. Margaret “Macke” Raymond has been a steadfast supporter of charter schools for decades. She is a major neoliberal proponent of “big data” ((In today’s context “big data” has nothing to do with pro-social or human-centered policies and arrangements.)) and has served as founder and director of the infamous Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University since its inception in 1999. CREDO supports charter schools and is heavily funded by billionaire venture “philanthropists” like the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Both organizations have harmed public education and the public interest for years. It is also worth noting that Macke is married to Dr. Eric Hanushek, who has been mystifying school funding issues in the United States for decades. Like Raymond, Hanushek is heavily promoted by neoliberals and privatizers as well. Together, Raymond and Hanushek have worked for years to impose the unpopular corporate school reform agenda on the public.

Macke’s criticism of charter schools is worth quoting at length. Fifty minutes and fifteen seconds into a 56-minute talk at the City Club of Cleveland on December 10, 2014, Macke, with no sense of irony, gives the following response to a question about charter school policy:

This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.  There are other supports that are needed… I think we need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools, but I also think we need to have more oversight of the overseers… the authorizers (emphasis added).

This is an astonishing statement.

Macke is basically saying that the so-called “free market” does not work, especially in education, but let’s not change course, let’s keep doing things that don’t work. ((See Irrationalism Central to Outlook of Charter School Promoters, August 10th, 2018.)) Such “logic” hurts the human-centered brain but appears natural, normal, and comfortable to the capital-centered brain. Sharp contradictions do not phase the capital-centered brain, especially when the profit motive is involved.

Nearly 30 years later, charter school oversight and accountability remain weak and ineffective. Charter school authorizers, especially the ones that are not part of a public school district, have rarely been reliable forces of quality control. And there is nothing to suggest that they will suddenly become more responsible and useful.

Todd Ziebarth

Another long-time diehard supporter of charter schools, and currently the senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Todd Ziebarth, had the following to say in 2009: “There are too many lousy charter schools out there” (as quoted in The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2009).

Ten years later, on March 28, 2019, commenting on chronically under-performing charter schools in Ohio, Arizona, and Texas, Ziebarth asserted the following in USA Today: “Many of those schools probably shouldn’t have been open to begin with.” ((Richards, E., & Thompson, C. (2019, March 28). Betsy DeVos calls for more charter schools even as they spark investigations across the country. USA TODAY.))

True. But why are so many rotten charter schools allowed to open year after year in state after state? Certainly this is nothing the public is pushing for. The average student, parent, and teacher is not in favor of more ineffective charter schools opening all the time. And would so many unsuccessful charter schools even be opening if charter authorizers were responsible and effective in the first place?

Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan was the infamous U.S. Secretary of Education (from 2009-2015) under the pro-charter school Obama administration. Many, if not most, people disapproved of Arne when he was in this important position, much the same way they broadly disapprove of corporate school reformer Michelle Rhee. Both Duncan and Rhee are recognized as supporters of antisocial policies and arrangements.

Arne was also the ill-reputed CEO of the Chicago Public School system, the third largest public school system in the country, before he was unilaterally appointed as U.S. Secretary of Education by President Obama. In Chicago, Arne oversaw and directed aggressive top-down efforts to charterize much of the public school district, wreaking havoc in one poor minority community after another. To this day, academic, financial, social, and other results remain dismal in Chicago. It is no surprise that hundreds of charter school teachers in Chicago have organized multiple strikes over the past year.

In June 2009, at the national annual conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Arne remarked that, “The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and even third-rate schools to continue to exist. Your goal should always be quality, not quantity.” ((Democracy Now. (2009, June 23). Education secretary Arne Duncan pushes to aggressively expand charter schools while admitting problems.))

Arne is correctly noting that there are plenty of bad charter schools, as well as many extra bad charter schools out there. He is also promoting the false dichotomy of “high-quality” charter schools versus “low-quality” charter schools in order to fool the gullible.

The following year, on July 1, 2010, again at the national annual conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Arne said, “Bad charter schools taint all of your reputations and allow your opponents, your opposition, to use those examples.” ((Duncan, A. (2010, July 1). Remarks by secretary Arne Duncan to the national alliance of public charter schools.))

Arne is right again: charter school failure remains widespread and is a liability—in more ways than one. Not surprisingly, today the charter school sector stands more tarnished, unaccountable, and scandal-ridden than ever.

Like the much-loathed neoliberal Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan remains active in widely-rejected corporate school reform efforts.

Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is yet another prominent long-time advocate of charter schools and other antisocial school-choice schemes. He is currently director of educational policy studies at the neoliberal-neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. In a Fall 2010 piece, Hess rightly notes that, school-choice advocates have long had “a tendency to vastly overpromise.” ((Hess, F. (2010, Fall). Does school choice work? National Affairs.)) A little later he states: “The path forward requires that choice advocates overcome the legacy of their inflated expectations and promises.” And in the final section of his paper, Hess correctly remarks that, “It is time for those who would like to transform America’s schools to let go of the dream that choice by itself is any kind of ‘solution.’”

The consumerist free market notion of choice has long functioned as a mechanism to remove government responsibility for the provision of education in a modern society based on mass industrial production. So-called “school-choice” turns education into a social Darwinist nightmare.

Chester Finn

Perhaps an even bigger charter school ideologue and Skinnerian than neoliberal demagogue David Osborne, ((Osborne is the well-funded neoliberal author of several books advocating the elimination of public right and the public sphere.)) Chester Finn has been advocating for privately-operated contract schools for decades. Finn, a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education, is currently the president emeritus of the neoliberal-neoconservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is also a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution where he chairs the Koret Task Force on K-12. Finn also serves on several other neoliberal-neoconservative organizations that support top-down antisocial policies and arrangements in education.

In a 2010 piece titled, The End of the Education Debate, Finn makes the following correct observation:

But the reform ideas generally labeled ‘school choice’ have lost some credibility, owing to the mediocrity of the actual schools they have produced. Far too many of these institutions deliver weak academic results or fall victim to organizational, political, and financial woes and shenanigans. Advocates of such alternatives have learned, to our ­sorrow, that while putting a ‘charter’ sign on a schoolhouse door certainly indicates potential, it is no guarantee of quality — or even of a genuinely different approach to education. Many of the people starting and running charter schools — most of them earnest and well ­meaning — either don’t really know what they’re doing or lack the capacity to do it well. ((Finn, C. (2010, Winter). The end of the education debate, National Affairs.))

Like Margaret Raymond’s observation above, this too is an astounding statement.

Finn is right: charter schools are poor and weak on many fronts; they are riddled with fraud and have an unimpressive record. In more than a few places charter schools have effectively lowered the quality of education. This is especially true in the case of virtual charter schools, which have a consistently abysmal academic and financial record.

Many other conspicuous long-time supporters of privately-operated charter schools could be quoted criticizing and complaining about the charter school sector while still avidly supporting charter schools.

For now, I will end this article with one last quote that reflects the direction of the future:

David Hornbeck was the Maryland State Superintendent of Schools from 1976 to 1988 and the superintendent of the Philadelphia school district from 1994 to 2000. For years he was a supporter of charter schools, seeing them as an important tool in the school reform arsenal, and as Philadelphia’s superintendent, he recommended that more than 30 charter schools be allowed to open. Now, in a reversal that is rare in education, he said this: ‘The last 20 years make it clear I was wrong’. ((Strauss, V. (2015, March 4). A stunning reversal on charter schools. Washington Post.))

Hornbeck should be commended for finding a way to reject anticonsciousness and come out and courageously oppose charter schools. A 20-year mistake is something the nation’s children and teachers cannot afford.

With the exception of Hornbeck, all the other individuals highlighted above, and many others like them, have not stopped pushing for more charter schools, despite their worsening problems.

The capital-centered brain is egocentric and objectively incapable of considering the public interest; it is narrowly focused on expanding the wealth of the owner of capital even if it means destroying the social fabric of society.

In the current context, charter school promoters are on the defensive more than ever before. The rhetoric, propaganda, lies, and disinformation promoted non-stop by charter school advocates for the last 30 years is surely and slowly dissolving. This is a good time for defenders of public schools and the public interest.

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