Public Money Used to Increase Segregated Charter Schools

It is well-documented that charter schools intensify segregation on the basis of ability, language, race, and socioeconomic status. Charter school demographics frequently do not reflect the demographics of public schools in their communities. This is because privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools routinely engage in selective enrollment practices even though they are “schools of choice” ostensibly “open to all.” Families may “choose” a charter school but the charter school ultimately decides who is admitted, who stays, and who doesn’t. Public schools, on the other hand, accept all students at all times. They are also more accountable and transparent than privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools.

The latest report on federally-funded segregation in the charter school sector comes from the award-winning veteran educator Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education (NPE). Carol has produced several well-researched reports in the past couple of years on extensive fraud, waste, and abuse in the crisis-prone charter school sector. She has focused mainly on the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) which annually funnels hundreds of millions of public dollars to charter schools operated by unelected individuals. The program is authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Despite many attempts, the federal government has largely ignored multiple public demands to end this state-organized corruption to pay the rich. This is despite the fact that president Joe Biden promised to ban for-profit charter schools and support efforts to bring more accountability to charters. Instead, the Biden administration has stuck to spending $440 million on the Charter Schools Program this year, which is a default win for privately-operated charter schools. Since 1994 the federal government has funneled about $4 billion in public funds to these segregated contract schools through the Charter School Program. Through her previous work, Carol showed that millions of dollars were sent to many charter schools that either never opened or operated only for a few years and then closed, leaving many families high and dry.

In her latest investigation, Carol shows how public money from the federal Charter Schools Program is being used in North Carolina to strengthen segregation through the mechanism of charter schools. These are alternatively known as “white-flight academies.” Among other things, Carol notes that the justification for the use of many grant monies from the federal Charter Schools Program is often weak and makes no sense. Many disturbing details and cases can be found here. For example, 11 charter schools in North Carolina that received CSP funds “have significant overrepresentation of White students or a significant underrepresentation of Black students compared with the population of the public school district in which they are located.” So much for the worn-out assertion by charter school advocates that charter schools are about the civil rights of minority students.

Sadly, there is no shortage of such examples in many cities across the country. It is not easy to find charter schools that are diverse and integrated. In Rochester, New York, for example, the Genesee Community Charter School is not only known for being predominantly white and wealthy, but also for resisting any attempts to diversify and integrate. The New York State Board of Regents has repeatedly criticized the privately-operated charter school for maintaining a student body that is much wealthier and whiter than the Rochester City School District. The same can be said about the notorious Success Academies charter school chain in New York City. Many of these charter schools, it should also be noted, rely heavily on anachronistic Skinnerian behaviorist practices to enforce student obedience.

Another troubling twist in the evolution of privately-operated charter schools is the growing use by religious organizations, churches, Catholic schools, and private schools of the charter school mechanism to further segregate communities. This is another expression of the accelerated neoliberal restructuring of state arrangements by powerful private interests to seize public funds in the context of a continually failing economy. In the neoliberal period, public authority is increasingly being usurped to serve privileged private interests in the sphere of education. Private entities of various kinds are eager to fund their operations through the seizure of public funds that belong to the public sector. This parasitic appropriation of public funds by non-transparent and non-diverse private or religious entities usually goes hand in hand with offering fewer services and programs as well (e.g., transportation services and food programs). And more often than not, to make-up for “cost reductions,” parents are pressured or required to donate time and/or money to these private entities.

Privatized education arrangements are rarely about serving all students, let alone equally. More than anything else, such arrangements reflect and fortify the stratification found in society. They reinforce various inequalities. They do not reduce exclusion and segregation. They are the opposite of unitary public school systems that have emerged around the world to educate all students as part of a modern nation-building project.

Modern societies based on mass industrial production cannot survive without large, public, free, universal, school systems. Modern societies should not reduce a social necessity and public good like education to a commodity or treat parents and students as consumers who fend-for-themselves in an increasingly chaotic and anarchic education marketplace. A system of winners and losers ensures inequality and belongs in the past.

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