No Justification for the Existence of Charter Schools (Part Two)

Non-profit and for-profit charter schools are privatized, marketized, corporatized education arrangements that appeared 30 years ago in the U.S. They are legal in 45 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam. About 3.3 million youth are currently enrolled in roughly 7,400 charter schools.

Charter schools openly embrace “free market” ideology and siphon billions of public dollars a year from public schools, many of which are chronically under-funded. Their academic track record is unimpressive and often very poor. Many do not provide employee retirement programs. Like a private business, charter schools spend lots of money on advertising and marketing and have high student, teacher, and principal turnover rates. They are also frequently mired in controversy, scandal, and corruption. They cannot levy taxes, are run by unelected individuals, and regularly hire uncertified teachers. Most charter schools are segregated and thousands have closed over the course of three decades, leaving many minority families out in the cold. The three main reasons for charter school closures are: financial malfeasance, mismanagement, and poor academic performance. Charter schools also dodge many public standards and laws followed by public schools. Moreover, about 90% of charter schools have no teacher unions and charter school authorizing is defective in many states. Many other problems could be listed.

It is also worth observing that the vast majority of individuals who enroll in teacher education programs do so in order to graduate and teach in a public school. Few, if any, teacher education candidates enroll in teacher education programs because they want to graduate and teach in a charter school. That is typically not the goal or outlook of people enrolled in teacher education programs. Further, as more problems with charter schools are exposed and publicized, the larger the number of people who oppose them. Criticism and rejection of charter schools has steadily increased over the years.

To be sure, charter schools did not start out as a humble, virtuous, principled, benign grass-roots effort. The charter school idea did not come from ordinary everyday parents, students, and teachers. There was never anything grass-roots or pro-social about the charter school movement. It is no surprise that many millionaires and billionaires are involved in charter schools. From the very beginning, charter schools have been a top-down initiative to break the public school “monopoly” and outsource education to the private sector under the veneer of high ideals. Charter schools did not emerge 30 years ago free of the influence of narrow private interests. They are a textbook product of the neoliberal period and project.

The notion that charter schools began as a way to empower teachers, serve as a laboratory for innovative replicable practices, provide parents with “choices,” reach kids who are “at-risk,” or some other lofty goal is designed to fool the gullible and divert attention from their inherently privatized and marketized character. It is not the case that charter schools started out as a great desirable idea that everyone could get behind but later on were hijacked by “the wrong people” and turned into the crisis-prone controversial schools that they are today. Such a perception implies that there is something legitimate or worth supporting about charter schools, which is another way of saying that there is something legitimate or worth supporting about the privatization of public schools.

From a human-centered perspective, privatization only increases problems, it does not solve them.

Privatization usually leads to more corruption, less transparency, poorer services, higher costs, diminished worker voice, more inequality, and less efficiency. Privatization negates the public interest. Privatization leaves workers and the public with fewer funds to serve workers and the public.

Private literally means the opposite of public. Private and public are antonyms. Blurring or trivializing the distinction between public and private serves only private interests and creates the illusion that the public sphere and private sphere do not have irreconcilable aims and practices. Public-private “partnerships” (PPPs), for example, have nothing to do with benefiting the public. PPPs, which are growing rapidly at home and abroad, mainly transfer public money to private hands under the banner of high ideals.

The aim of privatizers is not to advance the public interest but to seize as much public wealth as fast as possible through neoliberal state restructuring, that is, through state-organized corruption to funnel money to the rich. This harms education, society, the economy, and has nothing to do with a modern nation-building project.

The challenge confronting the society as a whole is how to ensure that the country has fully-funded, publicly-governed, world-class, integrated public schools in every neighborhood. Treating education as a commodity and parents and students as consumers and “school shoppers” is not the way forward. It reinforces a “winner-loser” ethos, which has no place in education. A modern society based on mass industrial production cannot operate and develop well on such a basis.

Creating the impression that there is something legitimate about charter schools  ((Charter means contract. Charter schools are contract schools. Unlike public schools, charter schools are not state agencies.)) or that they can somehow be improved and become something other than charter schools does not serve the public interest or jibe with the results of investigation. More charter schools equals more problems, including for charter schools themselves.

Closing all charter schools will help improve education, society, the economy, and the national interest in many ways. The deepening crisis in these spheres cannot be solved by further empowering the rich while further excluding people from making the decisions that affect their lives.

•  Part One of this article appeared in DV on September 26th, 2019 and can be found at: It showed how charter schools over-promise and under-deliver strong academic results.

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