Don’t Be Charter-Fooled

Major problems in the charter school sector have been detailed by many researchers and writers over the years. In the last year or two, however, persistent charter school problems have been exposed with much greater depth, breadth, and regularity by more individuals and organizations.

It has become abundantly clear to more people that the charter school sector is riddled with too many serious difficulties to hide. The consequences of these problems are just too severe to deny.

In this context, some “leaders” in the fractured crisis-prone charter school sector have remained hidebound, arrogant, and dogmatic, nonchalantly ignoring endless valid criticisms and simply chugging along as if everything is hunky dory.

Others in the charter school sector have feigned concern and expressed an ostensible desire to “acknowledge problems” and “improve.” The hope is to fool the gullible by recasting the heavily tarnished image of these deregulated schools so as to prettify them and counteract growing resistance to them.

But can a charter school not be a charter school?

As a general rule, state laws deliberately and consciously establish charter schools as entities (performance-based contracts) that are destined to have all the problems that they have. Charter schools are deregulated, deunionized, and privatized by conscious design. They are not public schools, no matter how often one claims they are.

The problem is not that charter schools are not living up to their “original promise,” but that they are doing exactly what they have always been carefully set up to do: function as pay-the-rich schemes in the context of a continually failing economy and discredited political system.

Nonprofit and for-profit charter schools have always been neoliberal through and through. The false narrative that charter schools started out as humble, progressive, grass-roots “innovations” that unforeseeably got hijacked by millionaires and billionaires for nefarious ends has always been a fairytale promoted by many on the left, right, and center. There is no “going back” to the “original vision” of charter schools. Contract schools have always fundamentally been “free market” schools.

While some charter school advocates may admit to and broadcast some problems in the charter school sector, this is not the same as making everything right. For example, getting rid of authoritarian, violent, Skinnerian “no-excuses” policies and practices in many charter schools will not stop a charter school from being a charter school. It will still be segregated, deregulated, and largely deunionized. It will still have high student, teacher, and principal turnover rates. It will continue to offer fewer services and resources than public schools. Fraud and corruption will not go away. Selective enrollment and fudging test data will persist as well.

Attempts by some in the fractured charter school sector to “improve” charter schools will not fundamentally or permanently change the content, nature, and direction of charter schools. Performance-based contract schools will remain performance-based contract schools. A change in form is not identical to a change in essence.

Neoliberals, privatizers, and corporate school reformers are highly effective at generating new forms of irrationalism and disinformation to preserve and promote their antisocial agenda. No doubt, they will continue to fool some, but as the saying goes, “you cannot fix a scam,” and most scams generally have a short and troubled shelf-life.

People should remain vigilant and continue to expose, critique, and reject privately-operated nonprofit and for-profit charter schools. They should step up their defense of public education and the public interest. Private wealthy interests have no place in public education. Owners of capital are obsessed only with the outmoded aim of maximizing profit as fast as possible, no matter the damage to the social and natural environment.

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