Segregated Unaccountable Charter Schools

Anyone who has carefully followed charter school news and analysis in recent years knows that privately-operated charter schools are not only segregated but actually increase segregation in the sphere of education. It has become common knowledge that charter schools are notorious for consistently under-enrolling English Language Learners, students with disabilities, homeless students, and other groups of students. Even though they are ostensibly public and “open to all,” most charter schools do not serve all students, let alone equally. Privatized education has never paved the way for all students to have an education.

But even when non-profit and for-profit charter schools are publicly exposed, cited, and rebuked for discriminatory enrollment practices, they are usually allowed to operate with impunity and to continue to siphon enormous sums of money from public schools that accept all students at all times. Many are frustrated by this persistent lack of accountability by schools that constantly claim to not only be accountable but to be more accountable than the public schools they continually drain large sums of money from. The public does not want to fund schools that frequently cherry pick students. Publicness is about inclusivity, not exclusivity. Public means for the common good, for everyone. To claim that you are a public entity while acting like a private entity is misleading.

While there is no shortage of charter schools engaged in discriminatory enrollment practices, the most recent example comes from Los Altos, California where the K-8 Bullis Charter School has consistently failed to enroll a diverse student population resembling the make-up of the community. Mountain View Voice reports that, “The Santa Clara County Board of Education voted 6-1 Wednesday [May 5, 2021] to reprimand Bullis Charter School for what it describes as a chronic failure to enroll enough low-income students, Latino students and children with disabilities.” Lopsided enrollment” at Bullis Charter School has been “flagged as a continued challenge” for years. While the “charter school has grown to roughly 1,100 children in recent years, its diversity has not improved.”

Shali Sirkay, president of the Los Altos School District board said that, “The staggering inequity in their enrollment becomes truly intolerable, and of a magnitude that we cannot ignore…I personally find it inconceivable and irresponsible that an organization receiving public funds can continue practices that have only proven to sustain and exacerbate this exclusivity.”

Bullis Charter School is said to face the threat of closure in the near future if it does not take concrete action to become more inclusive and diverse. Its current charter expires June 2022.

One of the persistent challenges in meaningfully reforming privately-operated charter schools is that charter schools were consciously and intentionally conceived and fostered decades ago as an arrangement to circumvent many pubic standards, attributes, and requirements. They were set up to be very different from public schools—organizationally, legally, philosophically, and operationally. They are not state agencies like public schools. Charter schools are privatized education arrangements run by unelected individuals. They may be called “public,” but charter schools are not public in the proper sense of the word. Indeed, charter school promoters go out of their way to insist that charter schools are “free market” schools based on individualism, “choice,” consumerism, and competition. As deregulated schools, charter schools are not required to follow most of the laws, rules, and regulations governing public schools; they have “autonomy” and “flexibility” to do as they please. President Bill Clinton, a big supporter of privately-operated charter schools, once called charter schools “schools with no rules.” Some charter school operators even get defensive when they are pushed to diversify their schools. The notion that charter schools can be something other than charter schools is objectively not in the cards.

To prevent the endless problems produced by charter schools, all charter school laws would have to be significantly and rapidly revamped. But then this would undercut the underlying logic, aim, and rationale of such laws and their emergence decades ago. This is unlikely to happen.

The only thing that can significantly and quickly reduce, even reverse, most of the damage incurred by charter schools is ending school privatization and, along with it, the flow of any public funds, resources, and buildings to charter schools. Privately-operated charter schools and all the severe problems they have been giving rise to for decades would disappear if they were deprived of colossal sums of public money, resources, and buildings that legitimately belong only to the public. Without tens of billions of public dollars and other public resources being siphoned by privately-operated charter schools, public schools and the public interest would be advanced.

Real accountability and a new human-centered direction in education and society begin with ensuring that government does not funnel socially-produced wealth away from the public and into the hands of narrow private interests. A government controlled and directed by neoliberal interests will routinely violate the public interest.

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