Charter Schools: “Choice” Is Not An Argument

Advocates of privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools have long ignored serious criticisms of charter schools in a variety of ways. They have always believed, for example, that simply repeating worn-out phrases like “charter schools provide choice” will automatically cause everyone to dismiss the need for any discussion, investigation, and critical thinking about the well-documented negative effects of charter schools on education, society, the economy, and the national interest.

“Choice,” however, is not an argument for the existence or expansion of privately-operated charter schools.

When charter school promoters use the language of “choice,” they want people to:

  1. Not recognize that education is an inalienable human right that must be guaranteed in practice by a public authority worthy of the name.
  2. Believe that “free market” ideology is the best and most pro-social way to organize education in a modern society based on mass industrial production.
  3. Ignore how “choice” leads to greater stratification and segregation in charter schools through their geographic location and selective student enrollment and attrition practices.
  4. Disregard the fact that by “choice” charter school promoters really mean education is a commodity, not a social responsibility, and parents and students are consumers, not humans and citizens, who fend for themselves while shopping for a “good” school that hopefully does not close in under 10 years.
  5. Think that there is no need to analyze how and why public schools have been set up to fail by privatizers so as to justify the rise of deregulated charter schools.
  6. Get used to the disinformation that public schools are automatically bad and charter schools are inherently superior.
  7. Ignore the fact that charter schools usually choose parents and students, not the other way around.
  8. Overlook the fact that “choice” does not guarantee excellence, stability, or equity. Several thousand deregulated charter schools run by unelected individuals have closed in recent decades.
  9. Believe that it does not matter who “delivers” education, but what kind of “results” are produced.
  10. Dismiss the fact that “choice” means taking money away from under-funded public schools that educate thousands of students and that public schools in many instances are even compelled to provide some free services to charter schools.

It is not possible to conceal the fact that deregulated charter schools fail and close regularly, educate far fewer students than public schools, are continually mired in fraud and corruption, are governed by unelected individuals, have high teacher and principal turnover rates, spend a lot of public money on advertising and marketing, dodge public standards for meetings and accountability, and siphon enormous amounts of money from public schools every day. Privately-operated charter schools also have more inexperienced and lower-paid teachers than public schools. In addition, many charter schools offer fewer services and programs than public schools. It is also worth noting that the performance of cyber charter schools is consistently abysmal. This is what “choice” has delivered.

The 50 problems plaguing privately-operated charter schools will not disappear by endlessly repeating “choice is good” and by treating parents and students as consumers and shoppers instead of humans and citizens with rights that must be guaranteed. Turning major human responsibilities like education into a “free market” commodity is not a modern way of educating people in the 21st century. It will not solve any problems. Over the past 30 years, segregated charter schools have only given rise to more problems, including many problems for themselves.

Parents and students do not need more problematic “choices” or choice just for the sake of choice. They need locally-controlled, world-class, fully-funded, non-demonized, free schools completely uninfluenced by narrow private interests. A modern nation and economy can’t be built on an education system based on the ideology of “survival of the fittest.”

To be sure, the rapid multiplication of privately-operated charter schools under President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona will go a long way toward nation-wrecking, undermining public education, harming the public interest, and dehumanizing the natural and social environment. It is no surprise that intense controversy and upheaval have characterized the charter school sector since day one and seem to increase every month.

Now is the time to step up defense of public schools and the public interest. The public matters more than ever. The privatization of schools and many other public enterprises through neoliberal state restructuring harms the majority, the economy, society, and the national interest. Privatization increases corruption and inefficiency, while lowering quality, increasing costs, and restricting democracy. The public must not permit neoliberals and privatizers to wreck public schools that have been serving 90% of America’s youth for well over a century. Schemes based on the “free market” and a “fend-for-yourself” ethos will certainly benefit a tiny handful of owners of capital, but they won’t solve deep problems that have worsened due to the actions of major owners of capital desperately hanging on to an obsolete economic system.

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