Federal Charter Schools Program, a Lifeline for Owners of Capital, Under Threat

Neoliberals established the Federal Charter Schools Program in 1994, three years after the nation’s first charter school law was passed in Minnesota. Since then, billions of public dollars have been handed over to privately-owned-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools through the federal program. The money is usually used for charter school start-up costs.

Putting aside the persistently high failure rate among charter schools and the rampant corruption and waste in the segregated charter school sector, charter school advocates are now worried that President Trump’s latest budget (FY21), which is rarely approved as is by Congress, may disadvantage charter schools by potentially depriving them of public funds that belong to the public. President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, want to lump more than two dozen education programs, including charter school funding, into one large grant ($19.4 billion) given to the states to do with as they wish, which would mean that public money for privately-owned-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools would not be so readily available. The stand-alone $440 million Federal Charter School Program would in effect disappear and it would become harder for privately-owned-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools to seize public funds under such an arrangement. This change is said to empower states and remove some of the “federal footprint” from education. But an alternative interpretation, one that only time will reveal to be true or false, is that such a governance shift will restrict access to the charter school sector by “smaller players” and privilege the main monopolies in this deregulated sector. The “big players” in the charter school sector are more capable of covering charter school start-up costs than “smaller players.”

But no matter what the education portion of the final federal budget ends up looking like, the fact remains that charter schools have been hijacking the public purse at all levels of government for decades.

Charter schools are permitted in 44 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam. These states and governments have handed over, and continue to hand over, billions in public funds and facilities to privately-owned-operated charter schools. Non-profit and for-profit charter schools also receive billions of dollars in funding from a range of billionaires and millionaires. And the mainstream media constantly goes out of its way to escalate charter school hype so as to fool the gullible.

Charter schools have no legitimate claim to public money because they are not public schools. Unlike public schools, non-profit and for-profit charter schools regularly exclude many students, are run by unelected officials, operate on a different calendar, oppose teacher unions, spend a ton on advertising and marketing, and operate in order to make a profit.

What is needed today is not only an end to the Federal Charter School Program but an end to the ability of all charter schools to lay claim to a single public penny. Not a single public dime should find its way into the hands of charter school owners-operators. If privately-owned-operated charter schools wish to exist, then, like private schools, they can raise their own funds. Public money belongs to public schools. Further, if charter schools really are superior to public schools, then let the “free market” that charter school advocates fetishize decide where the chips land.

In the meantime, government should focus on taking up its social responsibility to fully-fund a world-class system of public education available to all Americans in every zip code and neighborhood. Government should not be involved in enriching charter school “entrepreneurs.”

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.