Maryland: Privately-Operated Online Charter Schools Should Remain Illegal

It is no surprise that many are exploiting the “COVID Pandemic” to advance their narrow self-serving agendas. Charter school advocates are no exception.

Crises often generate instability, chaos, and confusion that can make it easier for such forces to get away with antisocial policies and arrangements that would be far more difficult to implement under normal conditions.

Charter school promoters support the antisocial outlook that says: “never let a serious crisis to go to waste.” This was most evident in New Orleans, Louisiana back in 2005 when disaster capitalists imposed privately-operated charter schools on everyone. Charter schools there have failed in many ways. ((Puerto Rico is another, more recent, example of disaster capitalism and charter schools. Privatizers and neoliberals wasted no time after Hurricane Maria (a deadly Category 5 hurricane that destroyed much of Puerto Rico in late 2017) to impose charter schools on the island.)) Guided by this pragmatic capital-centered dictum, charter school promoters, along with other neoliberals, privatizers, disaster capitalists, and big-tech billionaires are busy trying to determine how to impose more harmful arrangements on education and society when no one is looking. ((The Bill Gates-Andrew Cuomo agenda to “reimagine schools” in the state of New York is a recent example that has already generated extensive public resistance. In under two months, more than 17,500 people have signed 1-3 petitions opposing the involvement of billionaires and their representatives in public education.))

One such example comes from Maryland, where some want to legalize privately-operated online charter schools. On May 19, 2020, the Board of Contributors of the Frederick News Post used their “public” newspaper to call for legalizing privately-operated online charter schools. ((Board of Contributors, Should On Line Charter Schools Remain Illegal?, Frederick News Post, May 19, 2020.))

While readily admitting that in-person-face-to-face-instruction is superior to screen-based instruction, the Board of Contributors minimizes this critical issue and tries to render their push for legalizing privately-operated online charter schools as a matter of “choice.”

Like other charter school promoters, the Board of Contributors does not inform readers that there is a big difference between choice as such, and the “free market” consumerist notion of choice. Wittingly or unwittingly, the Board of Contributors confounds both conceptions so as to cultivate support for untenable education arrangements.

The first notion of choice simply means people select something from a list of alternatives. It is not necessarily or inherently political or economic. It does not depend on a particular epoch or era. The second notion of “choice” rests on and reinforces the companion ideologies of individualism, consumerism, and the “free market.” In other words, charter school promoters see “choice” as an exchange relationship, a market relationship, part of an outdated world where only commodities and commodity logic exist and matter. Among other things, this ignores the fact that privately-operated charter schools actually choose parents and students, not the other way around.

Charter school advocates believe that schools are like businesses and that parents and students are customers who fend-for-themselves and shop for education the same way they shop for peanut butter or chewing tobacco. If kids get stuck at a terrible school, then parents “vote with their feet” and shop around until they find “a good school,” assuming one exists. Nothing is guaranteed. Instead, a dog-eat-dog ethos is fostered and normalized. It is worth noting that thousands of deregulated non-profit and for-profit charter schools have closed over the years, leaving many families out in the cold.

Another reason why it makes no sense to legalize privately-operated online charter schools in Maryland (or elsewhere) is that even the neoliberal pro-charter school Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University has produced several studies showing that academic performance in privately-operated online charter schools is consistently abysmal. Poor results are the norm in charter schools in general and cyber charter schools in particular. Over the years, many news reports and independent researchers have shown this as well. CREDO is funded by some of the biggest billionaire supporters of segregated non-profit and for-profit charter schools operated by unelected individuals.

In addition, many articles, essays, and reports from diverse sources have documented and exposed many forms of corruption, fraud, unprofessional practices, and unethical behaviors in privately-operated online charter schools across the country. “Ghost students,” low graduation rates, over-billing, embezzlement, misreporting, over-hyped promises, poor communication with parents, inadequate student services, moving money around in illegal and unethical ways—these are just some of the violations that appear on a long list of abuses committed regularly and with impunity by privately-operated cyber charter schools.

From the perspective of teaching and learning, more in-person-face-to-face instruction, not more digital and buffered communication, is needed. ((For extensive research on the many shortcomings of virtual schools, including cyber charter schools, see the work of professor Alex Molnar at the NEPC website: . The Diane Ravitch blog also provides dozens of insightful articles exposing the weaknesses of online learning.))  Of course, given the current coronavirus crisis, this must be done in a way that protects the health and well-being of all.

Ultimately, however, regardless of the mode of educational delivery, no public funds or public assets must be handed over to private businesses like charter schools. The need is to fully-fund and support public schools, not legalize more poor-performing cyber charter schools that will lower the level of education and siphon much-needed funds that belong to public schools.

The main choice confronting people today is between capital-centered arrangements in education versus human-centered arrangements in education. The former embraces the chaos, anarchy, and violence of the “free market,” while the latter embraces social responsibility and rights.

Charter school advocates are unable and unwilling to see that education is a social responsibility and a public good that must be fully-funded, world-class, locally-controlled, and available to all for free in every zip code. Education is a basic human right, not a consumer good or a commodity. The right to education must be provided with a guarantee in practice. There is no need to reduce serious social responsibilities like education to Russian roulette, especially in a society based on mass industrial production where all production is socialized but in contradiction with privatized relations of production.

Currently, more than half the states do not offer cyber charter schools. Maryland is home to about 45 charter schools enrolling roughly 23,000 students. Nearly 70% of these privately-operated contract schools are located in urban settings. Approximately 900,000 students attend Maryland’s more than 1,400 public schools in 24 public school systems.

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