Charter School Promoters Defend Antisocial Culture of Maximum Profit

About 3.3 million students are currently enrolled in roughly 7,400 privately-operated charter schools across 45 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Five states remain opposed to these outsourced schools that appeared in the U.S. 30 years ago.

Today, thousands of segregated charter schools run by unelected individuals are either openly operated as for-profit schools or managed, directed, or overseen by one or more for-profit entities and businesses. In Michigan and Florida, for example, charter schools openly run for profit are the majority of charter schools in the state.

Major owners of capital have been behind charter schools for three decades and the original architects of charter schools approached charter schools from a capital-centered perspective. Charter schools have always been a textbook top-down neoliberal project from the very beginning; they have never been a grass-roots phenomenon.

But even so-called non-profit charter schools engage in many for-profit activities as well. In practice, the distinction between non-profit and for-profit is a distinction without a difference; non-profits can and do make profits and they can and do often distribute profits in questionable and unethical ways. Some believe that the classification “non-profit” may actually be more nefarious than the “for-profit” classification. On the one hand, “non-profit” sounds more benign and less crass than “for-profit,” and on the other hand it conceals the many connections non-profit corporations have with various private interests preoccupied with maximizing profit. This is also where the idea that privately-operated charter schools are fundamentally pay-the-rich schemes comes from.

In this connection, since 1994 the Federal Government has funneled millions of public dollars to privately-operated segregated charter schools every year through the bi-partisan Federal Charter Schools Program (CSP)—all while thousands of public schools across the country have gone under-funded. Even though charter schools have no legitimate claim to public funds, over the course of 25 years more than $5 billion has been funneled away from public schools and into charter schools through this federal program. Like many other federal programs, the public is generally unaware of this program and has never had any meaningful say in its creation, operation, and development.

In FY 2020, the CSP received an annual appropriation of $440 million for the second consecutive year, the highest-ever funding level in the program’s long history.

But with growing backlash against charter schools and more demands for funding cuts to the CSP, the House Appropriations Committee in Congress is taking note and proposing at least some small superficial changes. Thus, recently, in the course of preparing budget resolutions for the coming fiscal year the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a small cut of $40 million for the next fiscal cycle, reducing CSP funding from $440 million a year to $400 million a year. In the scheme of things this is a miniscule amount.

Upon hearing about the proposed small funding cut charter school promoters (e.g., the billionaire-backed National Alliance for Public Charter Schools) wasted no time expressing their pious outrage, cynically calling the cut “particularly egregious.”

Much of this public money goes to fund for-profit charter schools and the U.S. House of Representatives wants to restrict the flow of public funds to for-profit charter schools, especially after the publication of numerous reports over the past 2-3 years exposing extensive fraud, waste, and corruption in the program and the crisis-prone charter school sector itself. Some of these reports are available through the Network for Public Education. The National Education Policy Center has also exposed endless problems in the troubled charter school sector. The point of the budget bill is to prohibit any funds going to “a charter school that contracts with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.” Currently, thousands of unaccountable and segregated charter schools governed by unelected officials are run, managed, or overseen by low-quality, for-profit companies rife with conflicts of interests. Many believe it is immoral to make profits off kids and human social responsibilities like education.

Charter school promoters are cynically claiming that Congress somehow hates kids because they do not want public money to enrich owners of capital. Charter school promoters want the public to believe that a minuscule cut of $40 million that they have no legitimate claim to in the first place is going to cause the sky to fall and cause grave damage to the profits of capitalist firms that manage charter schools. They have even claimed that such a small cut will end the ability of privately-operated charter schools to engage in any kind of contracting with outside entities and therefore public schools should also be prevented from contracting with any outside contractors. This is false. The House bill does not say anything like that.

It should also be recalled that charter schools are already awash in tens of billions of dollars a year that they have siphoned from public schools attended by millions of minority students. Charter schools also receive millions of dollars every year from venture philanthropists and, because they are private entities, charter schools were, unlike public schools, able to seize billions of public dollars from PPP funds from the CARES Act. Charter school promoters are always trying to pressure the public to believe that they are financially beleaguered and always victims while trying to be saviors.

While it is unlikely that Congress will represent the public will and eventually cut a miniscule $40 million from the CSP program, charter school promoters are terrified that the door is opening more widely to the idea of rejecting charter schools and the idea that charter schools have no valid claim to public funds.

Charter school promoters believe they are winning the ideological war raging around charter schools and school privatization. But the facts show every day that privatization exacerbates many problems and solves nothing in terms of the public interest. Privatization in every sector harms democracy, quality, and accountability. Privatization enriches a handful of people while taking money out of the economy and increasing costs, inefficiency, and corruption.

The coming months and years will grow more difficult for charter school promoters and the troubled charter school sector. The war is far from over. Things will become more heated. Opposition to charter schools is growing in a steady methodical way, gaining momentum in an organic and substantive way that leaves people with a real conviction in the necessity to oppose charter schools and defend public education and the public interest. This battle is only going to intensify. Through many twists and turns, the old is slowly dying and decaying while the fresh and new is gradually arising. It is no longer a matter of if the public will eventually prevail, but when the public will prevail against major owners of capital.

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