Will Charter Schools Improve Education in France?

Charter by definition means contract, a legally binding agreement between two or more parties to do or not do something within a specified period of time. Typically, contracts also enshrine a set of rewards and punishments.

Contracts are the quintessential market category. They govern how relations work in the marketplace and ensure exchange relations occupy center-stage in contemporary capitalist societies. Contracts are a key mechanism used often to outsource and privatize public services, programs, and enterprises. Contracting, especially in the neoliberal period, is a way to expand the claims of private interests on public funds, assets, and authority while restricting the claims of the public to public funds, assets, and authority.

Charter schools are contract schools. They are outsourced privatized schools that use public money that belongs to public schools.1  Charter schools are not public schools in the proper sense of the word. In the U.S., for example, charter schools differ dramatically from public schools. Among other things, charter schools are run by unelected individuals, cannot levy taxes, are not state agencies, oppose unions, frequently hire many uncertified teachers, spend a lot on advertising, are exempt from numerous public laws, and are often run openly as for-profit entities. They also have a very high failure rate: five thousand charter schools have closed since their inception in 1991.2 Financial malfeasance, mismanagement, and poor academic performance are the three most common reasons nonprofit and for-profit charter schools close regularly in the U.S., leaving many minority families out in the cold.

The relentless pressure of the law of the falling rate of profit is forcing major owners of capital in more countries to use the state to establish and expand privately-operated charter schools as a way to counteract the inescapable decline in the rate and mass of profit. Owners of capital see the public education budget as a large pool of money they can seize in the context of a continually failing economy.

Presently, the U.S. is home to the largest number of charter schools in the world, with about 7,400 privately-operated nonprofit and for-profit charter schools strewn across the country. Only about half a dozen other countries have privately-operated charter schools and none have close to the number of charter schools found in the U.S.

France, a major European country, is now considering establishing privately-operated charter schools. Unlike the U.S., France has long enshrined the claim to public education in its constitution. Unlike many constitutions, the U.S. constitution does not even contain the word education in it. For 60 years, however, France has also funneled enormous sums of public money to private Catholic schools so long as these schools hire state-certified teachers and use the national curriculum. “About 15 percent of France’s primary and secondary schools fall into this category,” says the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.

Valérie Pécresse is presently the candidate of the Republicans for France’s presidential election in April 2022. She is described as the first woman nominated by the Republicans as a presidential candidate. The New York Times reports that Pécresse, 54, is “the current leader of the Paris region and a former national minister of the budget and then higher education, has risen to second place behind Mr. Macron in the polls among likely voters in the election”

Among other things, Pécresse is described as a right-winger who proudly and publicly declares that she is inspired by Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of Britain who vigorously promoted a neoliberal outlook and agenda at home and abroad.

Recently, Pécresse proposed establishing charter schools in France. According to a November 30, 2021, article in the French newspaper LeMonde:

In outlining the educational platform for her presidential candidacy in a speech in Venoy (Yonne) on October 12, Valérie Pécresse proposed transforming 10 percent of the nation’s public schools into “a new kind of public school under contract, inspired by ‘charter schools’ found in England and Sweden.” These schools, which would be primarily located in marginalized neighborhoods, would benefit, Pécresse declared, from the managerial autonomy currently exercised in France by private schools under contract, which account for 15 percent of the nation’s 60,000 primary and secondary schools. In these charter schools, “enrollment will depend on parents and students abiding by a charter of commitment.

To add insult to injury, Pécresse seems to favor the infamous and heavily-criticized “no-excuses” charter school model found in the U.S. These schools are so authoritarian that they have had to rebrand themselves to project a “softer” and more humane public image.

While Pécresse is often described as a right-winger, this may make very little difference in the scheme of things because the ruling elite are comfortable using politicians of all stripes to advance the neoliberal antisocial offensive. In the U.S., for example, both Democrats and Republicans have been long-time supporters of privately-operated charter schools that siphon billions of dollars a year from public schools. The main point is that the idea of privately-operated charter schools is now out there and the door has been opened to introducing them in the future.

France would do well to learn from the negative experience of other countries with “autonomous” charter schools, especially the U.S. and New Zealand. Privately-operated charter schools not only possess the non-public features listed above, they also intensify segregation, reduce accountability, and increase corruption. In addition, they leave public schools and the public sector with less money to function and excel. They also reinforce the ideologies of consumerism, competition, and individualism. Charter school advocates and operators treat parents and students as consumers, not humans or citizens. They promote the illusion that education is a business, not a social responsibility that society must guarantee for all for free. Treating a social responsibility like education as a business opportunity has been a disaster for people nationally and internationally.

The new year should be a time for all forces in all countries to renew and step up their demands for an end to the commodification of education. Governments around the world must take up their social responsibility to provide people’s rights, including the right to an education, with a guarantee in practice. No one should have to fend for themselves when it comes to securing a high quality education in the 21st century.

  1. Workers (along with nature) are the only source of wealth. All funds used to run public enterprises and the entire society come from the labor-time of workers. Wealth is not produced by owners of capital. []
  2. See “5,000 Charter Schools Closed in 30 Years” (2021) here. []
Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.