30th Anniversary of Charter Schools: Three Decades of Neoliberal Wrecking

June 4, 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the first charter school law in the United States. Privately-operated charter schools are now legal in 45 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont have no laws enabling the creation of charter schools.

About 3.3 million youth are currently enrolled in roughly 7,400 charter schools across the country. By comparison, about 50 million students are enrolled in 100,000 public schools in the U.S. The U.S. public education system has been around for more than 150 years and educates 90% of the nation’s youth.

While charter schools, also known as contract schools, have grown rapidly over the last three decades, so have the endless serious problems associated with them, including the closure of more than 3,000 charter schools, usually for reasons such as financial malfeasance, mismanagement, or poor academic performance. Scandal, corruption, and controversy have been the main fellow-travelers of these segregated and outsourced schools operated by unelected individuals.

From the perspective of major owners of capital and their representatives, there is much to celebrate about the 30th anniversary of charter schools, namely the neoliberal restructuring of the state to undermine the American public education system in order to funnel tens of billions of public dollars from public schools into their private hands. Not surprisingly, the rise of privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools has been a disaster for public schools, the public interest, society, the economy, and the national interest. The only thing “innovative” about charter schools is their ability to develop new forms of transferring public funds to narrow private interests under the banner of high ideals. Charter schools have always been pay-the-rich schemes that take socially-produced wealth out of the economy and leave the public worse off. As “private-public-partnerships” they represent another form of state-organized corruption to pay the rich. This has been the norm since 1991. Charter schools never started out as a humble, virtuous, organic, pro-social, benign, grass-roots “experiment.” Charter schools are a textbook example of neoliberal arrangements in the sphere of education. Their different forms, shapes, profiles, locations, and sizes do not change their neoliberal essence.

The public should not forget that charter schools are not public schools and that many, if not most, are not really “tuition-free” or “open to all kids.” It is well-known that charter schools choose parents and students, not the other way around. Charter schools routinely cherry-pick students and engage in discriminatory enrollment practices. It is also the case that many charter school authorizers are not really public in the proper sense of the word either. It is also worth noting that deregulated charter schools are created by private citizens.

Charter schools have not closed the “opportunity gap” or the “achievement gap.” Thousands have a poor academic track record. Their “autonomy” and “flexibility” to deliver “results” in the name of “accountability,” “choice,” and “competition” is another way of saying that they do not follow the same public standards that apply to public schools and that they operate with impunity. Coast to coast, the gap between charter school hype and charter school realities remains as wide today as it was 30 years ago. Charter schools are notorious for over-promising and under-delivering.

Charter schools are segregated, deunionized, unaccountable, non-transparent, deregulated schools that spend lots of money on advertising—just like a private business. They usually over-pay administrators, are run by unelected individuals, and cannot levy taxes. They hire more inexperienced and more uncertified teachers than public schools, generally pay teachers less than their public school counterparts, and also tend to have fewer nurses than public schools. Many charter school teachers are not even part of an employee retirement system.

Charter schools also tend to offer fewer full-fledged services and programs than public schools. Many do not provide transportation or proper food services and sports programs. On top of all this, hundreds of charter schools open and close every year, ensuring chaos, instability, and anarchy in the sphere of education, which is terrible for teaching, learning, and community.

Importantly, charter school promoters openly and publicly embrace “free market” ideology even though recurring economic crises have thoroughly discredited such an antisocial ideology. It is generally recognized that there is little that is “free” about the “free market” in a highly monopolized economy with a fine-tuned revolving door between government and rich individuals. With no sense of irony, charter school promoters casually talk about students and parents as consumers and shoppers instead of humans and citizens with basic rights that a modern government is duty-bound to guarantee in practice. Charter school promoters believe that a social Darwinist outlook based on winners and losers—competition—is wonderful for education. They think this is a good healthy thing. They endorse the idea and strategy that “edupreneurs” should use public dollars to run segregated schools governed by unelected individuals. They loathe the American public education system which has produced millions of educated individuals who have built the nation. They have no conception of education as a social responsibility and a human right that must be guaranteed. In the context of a modern socialized economy, charter schools increase social irresponsibility and anarchy in the sphere of education.

Charter school advocates are also averse to grasping the critical difference between public and private. They prefer to blur this distinction for private financial gain. Charter school advocates believe that if they assert 50 times a day that a charter school is a public school, then this will cause people to not recognize their privatized, marketized, corporatized character. They think that no one can see charter schools for the pay-the-rich schemes that they are.

There is nothing to celebrate about neoliberal education arrangements called charter schools. They have not solved any problems, just created more. Charter schools cannot be prettified no matter how hard their supporters and promoters try. They are terribly inequitable and do not meet the nation’s needs. Thirty years later all we have is even more controversy and scandal surrounding charter schools. Cyber charter schools and so-called “no-excuses” charter schools are especially scandalous. Is this what a successful “education experiment” looks like? What evidence is there that the next 30 years will be any better?

Charter schools have changed the American education landscape for the worse, which is why opposition to them is steadily-growing, not diminishing. This is bound to happen as the many problems with charter schools become more exposed and analyzed. The public gains nothing from funneling socially-produced wealth into the hands of narrow private interests concerned with cashing in on kids. Neoliberal arrangements in education are a big step backward, not something to rejoice.

One of the ironies in this entire saga is that one of the oldest charter schools in Minnesota, home to the first charter school law in the U.S., was recently shut down for the usual litany of serious problems affecting most charter schools. Many charter schools have a short shelf life. Hundreds close every year, leaving many minority families feeling angry and abandoned. Not surprisingly, charter school promoters rarely highlight, let alone openly and honestly discuss, the many grave problems plaguing the crisis-prone charter school sector. They prefer instead to present a Disney-esque portrait of charter schools, something akin to a fairy tale.

The next 30 years can be much better and much different. We can have a public school system free of the influence of privileged private interests. We can and must have a public school system controlled by a public authority worthy of the name.

Moving forward, it is critical for defenders of public education and the public interest to keep developing and strengthening the movement against privatization in general and school privatization in particular. This is an exciting time to keep galvanizing more people from all walks of life to keep public funds, resources, and facilities in public hands. History and justice are on our side.

Capital-centered interests will always oppose human-centered interests. Fortunately, there is a growing recognition that privatizers and neoliberals are historically superfluous and a big burden on society.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.