Charter School Promoters Complain About Inability to Pilfer More Public Funds

While they have constantly been at it, every now and then charter school advocates self-servingly complain more vociferously than usual about how they are unable to funnel even more public funds from public schools into the hands of narrow private interests.

A quick review of charter school news in recent days shows no fewer than a dozen well-coordinated articles about how privately-operated charter schools are not receiving their “fair share” of public funds and that public schools are getting more money than them and this supposedly puts charter schools “at a disadvantage.” The well-synchronized news articles revolve around a November 2020 “study” from the University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform, titled: “Charter School Funding: Inequity Surges in the Cities.”1 Not surprisingly, the Department of Education Reform is funded by the main billionaire supporters of school privatization such as the Walton Foundation. Such “studies” are usually capital-centered disinformation pieces, not rigorous research conducted on the basis of fidelity to the public interest.2

First and foremost, crisis-prone charter schools are privatized education arrangements that operate according to the outdated ideologies of individualism, consumerism, and the “free market.” Charter schools are contract schools, not state agencies like public schools. Charter schools are not public schools in the proper sense of the word. Charter schools and public schools are different entities with different legal, social, historical, and economic profiles and aims. They cannot be equated. It is a misnomer to call charter schools public schools. It is self-serving and intellectually lazy to blur the critical distinction between public and private. As such, charter schools have no legitimate claim to a single public penny. They have no right to public funds. Public funds belong only to public schools and no one else. Many state constitutions even prohibit the transfer of public funds to private entities, including private schools. If charter schools want money, they can get it from somewhere other than the public purse.

In addition, privately-operated charter schools not only already receive billions of dollars in public funds from the federal government and state governments, they also have a large and steady stream of money pouring in from venture philanthropists and other millionaires and billionaires, including virtue-signaling movie stars and sports celebrities. And unlike public schools, which are not private businesses, charter schools were recently able to seize enormous sums of PPP funds (from the CARES Act) which are meant for private businesses.

There is also the issue of how privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools typically provide students and teachers with fewer resources and programs than public schools, while spending lots of money on administrators and advertising (just like a private business). This is especially true in for-profit charter schools which openly and casually admit to running schools to profit off kids. Many think this is immoral. Public schools, even in their under-funded and constantly-demonized state, provide students with more resources, programs, and benefits than privately-operated charter schools. And unlike privately-operated charter schools, public schools accept all students at all times. Public schools do not have the same discriminatory enrollment practices that privately-operated charter schools have. The student profile in a charter school usually differs from the student profile in a public school. It should also be observed that corruption and embezzlement remain widespread in the non-transparent charter school sector. Arrests of charter school employees, owners, and operators appear in the news every week. The real number is likely higher.

Privately-operated charter schools have always been pay-the-rich schemes masquerading as “innovations in education” that “empower parents” and “raise student achievement.” As part of the neoliberal antisocial offensive, advocates of these privatized arrangements work non-stop to figure out how to structure state arrangements in a way that funnels even more socially-produced wealth into the hand of private interests under the veneer of high ideals.

The public must step up its opposition to pay-the-rich schemes and demand greater investments in public schools and social programs. Funneling even more public funds to the rich will make things worse for education, society, the economy and the national interest. Pay-the-rich schemes have not solved any problems confronting education and society. The existence and expansion of charter schools, for example, has made things worse for both charter schools and public school systems.

The issue with charter schools is not test scores, “innovation,” “fair funding,” “choice,” “opportunity,” or “parent power.” These hackneyed phrases are part of the anachronistic neoliberal lexicon designed to divert and disorient people. The core issue is that charter schools are privatized education arrangements that are an integral part of the neoliberal antisocial offensive to destroy the public interest and enrich owners of capital in the context of a continually failing economy that is causing owners of capital to become increasingly desperate in their efforts to use the state to stave off falling profits. Charter schools, in this sense, are a mechanism to avert declining profits, and they are no different, in principle, from other pay-the-rich schemes (e.g., “Public-Private-Partnerships”) to funnel more public money to the rich.

The current thinking has to move beyond “are charter schools ‘good’ or bad’?” This is not analysis or investigation. Such an approach is a recipe for inaction and paralysis and enables further wrecking of the social and natural environment. The level of analysis, thinking, and discussion around charter schools needs to be raised on an uninterrupted basis so as to develop the social consciousness to unleash the human factor to stop privatization and advance the public interest. The intense objective contradictions maturing in the current period are providing people with openings to advance the New over the Old.

  1. DeAngelis, Corey A., Wolf, Patrick J., Maloney, Larry D., May, Jay F. (2020). Charter School Funding: Inequity Surges in the Cities. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform. []
  2. Professor Gene Glass describes this education department here. []
Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.