Outlaw Charter Schools: Can A Charter School Not Be A Charter School?

The Online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “outlaw” as:

  • to remove from legal jurisdiction or enforcement
  • to deprive of the benefit and protection of law
  • a lawless person or a fugitive from the law
  • an animal (such as a horse) that is wild and unmanageable

Over the years much has been written about the chronic absence of accountability, oversight, transparency, rules, and regulations for charter schools. The record shows that these deunionized, deregulated, outsourced, oversold schools run by unelected private persons on the basis of “free market” ideology routinely operate with impunity. The failure rate of these segregated schools is staggering.

Many have wondered for decades why, in practice, charter schools do not uphold even weak rules and laws here and there. Why do they evade or superficially uphold many federal laws that are supposed to apply to them? Why are accountability and transparency so hard to come by in the crisis-prone charter school sector? After 31 years, how are charter school operators frequently able to dodge many basic standards and requirements of modern life, institutions, and organizations? How can charter schools be so anarchic and unmanageable decades after they first appeared?

Given this long-standing chaos, it is no surprise that charter schools, which barely make up seven percent of all schools in the country, are constantly mired in scandal, corruption, and fraud. Indeed, an arrest of a charter school employee is made nearly every week in the charter school sector. The news is regularly filled with sensational announcements of different crimes committed by charter school owners, operators, and employees.

Charter schools also regularly exclude different types of students and have fewer nurses than public schools. Many do not even require teachers to be certified or licensed to teach. In addition, teachers in public schools are generally paid more and tend to have better retirement plans than charter school teachers. Not surprisingly, the teacher turnover rate in charter schools is very high. So is the student and principal turnover rate. None of this helps continuity, stability, and collegiality.

On top of this, extensive information about widespread poor academic performance in cyber charter schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools is now available in many places. Poor academic performance is one of several reasons charter schools close every week, leaving many minority families feeling violated. Financial malfeasance and mismanagement are the two other most common reasons charter schools close regularly.

The main reason why charter schools are such anarchic and unmanageable schools is that they are set up under the law to be that way. The nation’s 7,500 charter schools are deregulated schools by design. They are purposely exempt from most public laws, rules, regulations, and standards upheld by public schools.

Charter schools are “free market” schools and do not operate like public schools. This is why they differ from public schools in legal, philosophical, and organizational ways. It is why, unlike public schools, charter schools treat parents and students as customers and consumers, not citizens and humans with definite rights. This “autonomy” and entire set-up are deliberate and intentional. This rules-free arrangement is not a fluke, some annoying oversight, or a silly mistake. This “autonomy” is the “independence” that these “innovative” schools run by unelected private persons need in order to “do as they please” under the banner of high ideals.

To be clear, the absence of meaningful supervision, regulation, and accountability is a built-in feature of charter schools, a salient feature of charter schools, not a bug or mishap. It is intrinsic to the charter school model and not the result of shaky thinking, poor implementation, or “unintentional outcomes.” Contrary to what charter school advocates like to claim, accountability and transparency are not at the core of charter schools. Clarity and conviction on this issue are critical.

Charter schools are not set up to be regulated, accountable, transparent, and stable in the sense of what people normally understand these terms to mean.

“Free market” accountability is not really accountability. Chaos, anarchy, and violence are the main features of the “free market.” The fact is that there can be no justice in a fend-for-yourself dog-eat-dog world. Survival-of-the-fittest is brutal and guarantees winners and losers. Equilibrium, stability, and security are rare in an economic set-up based on competition and profit maximization. Every day, we hear financial pundits use terms like “uncertainty,” “volatility,” and “instability” to correctly describe the “free market.” Conditions are so chaotic and anarchic in the “free market” that one of the most common refrains made by such pundits is, “well, of course, at the end of the day you can’t really predict what the markets will do; anything can happen.” This is true, but is it any way for modern humans to live today? Why should anyone live in a state of constant insecurity, instability, chaos, and anxiety centuries after the scientific and technical revolution made it possible to easily meet the needs of all several times over? This includes providing a free world-class public education under public control—free of narrow private interests—to everyone.

Trying to regulate or oversee something that is by design not really meant to have meaningful supervision and regulation would mean radically changing the laws and practices surrounding charter schools. It would mean doing the opposite of what we have today. It would entail making charter schools something they are not.

But can a charter school not be a charter school?

Can a charter school suddenly stop being privatized and become public like a public school? Can it become its opposite? Can it stop being a performance-based contract school? Can a charter school even be called a charter school if it acquires all the features of a public school? Can it become a state actor like a regular public school? Can it be governed by elected officials and have the power to levy taxes like public schools? Can charter schools be audited as normally, frequently, and effortlessly as public schools? Can charter schools allow teachers in their schools to be unionized even though about 90% are currently not unionized? Can charter schools stop treating teachers as “at-will” employees? Can a charter school become an entity that affirms the civil rights and other rights of students in practice? Can neoliberal governments eradicate the powerful private interests that own, operate, and promote charter schools? Can capital-centered governments end the commodification of education? Do the rich have any incentive to terminate unaccountable and unmanageable schools run by unelected private persons? Can the rich abandon the profit motive?

Charter schools differ profoundly from public schools by design, and these differences appear at many levels and in many forms. ((For extensive background facts and analysis about dozens of different aspects of the charter school sector, search for “Shawgi Tell” here.)) One of the original neoliberal justifications given for charter schools is that they could come into existence once public school districts, which have been around for more than 150 years, are deprived of what charter school advocate Ted Kolderie called their “exclusive franchise to own and operate public schools.” Once this historic pre-condition for privatization happened, Kolderie reasoned, a new and different “system” of schools—outsourced schools—owned and operated by unelected private persons and large corporations could come into being.

It is no accident that charter schools emerged firmly in the context of the neoliberal era that was launched at home and abroad in the late 1970s. Neoliberalism is at its core a major assault on the public interest and human rights. It further marginalizes the polity and ensures that the rich get richer even faster, thereby intensifying political and economic inequality.

The fact that the number of charter schools continues to steadily increase nationwide does not mean that there is any justification for their existence, it just means that neoliberals and their entourage are able to impose their narrow private will on the public will. It means that the public has not yet developed sufficient resistance to stop school privatization. Nonetheless, the justification for charter schools remains as weak today as it did when the charter school idea was first hatched by neoliberal forces more than 35 years ago. Charter schools did not originate with grass-roots forces, which is why they violate the public interest, undermine public education, and harm the economy and national interest.

Just as all the campaign finance reform laws in the world have not changed the corrupting influence of (massive amounts of) money in elections and just as inequality is guaranteed under capitalism, it is impossible for a charter school to not be a charter school. The rich are not going to eliminate arrangements that they have intentionally and methodically established for their benefit. They will always seek new sources of profit, and for the past 40 years the public sector has been a main target of major owners of capital.

It is wishful thinking to believe that a charter school can be something other than a charter school. Such an orientation blocks deeper thinking and deeper changes that are needed. The fact is that small or piecemeal changes to charter schools in different states have not slowed the expansion of charter schools and the myriad problems that accompany them. Problems continue to multiply in the charter school sector. The news is filled every day with reports of illegal and unethical activities in privately-operated charter schools. In this way, charter schools express the replacement of a government of laws with a government of police powers, which is a coercive non-democratic form of governance which rejects modern public standards, principles, laws, and rules. Police powers permeate U.S. political institutions and operate arbitrarily and with impunity.

As they have for the last 31 years, charter schools will continue to undermine public schools by siphoning billions of dollars a year from them. They will also continue to perform poorly, engage in outlaw activities, and close every week, leaving thousands of black and brown families feeling abandoned and angry. So much for a superior alternative to “dreadful” public schools—the same “dreadful” public schools that have been methodically set up to fail by neoliberals and privatizers for years. The general neoliberal playbook strategy here goes like this: starve public schools of funds year after year. Then impose tons of high-stakes standardized tests on them to “show” that they are “failing.” Then humiliate and degrade them repeatedly in order to generate antisocial public opinion against them. And finally, punish and privatize them, only to replace them with many failing charter schools that enrich a handful of people at the expense of low-income minority students.

What is needed today is a robust movement based on the principle that education is a right, not a commodity, not a business, not a consumer good, and not something that should be left to chance and the “free market” in a modern society. To treat parents and students as consumers and to make them fend-for-themselves in order to get a good education is inconsistent with modern demands, requirements, and possibilities.

If charter schools wish to exist, that is fine so long as they receive zero public funds, services, facilities, and resources because these belong legitimately and entirely to public schools. A school does not become public just because it is called public 50 times a day. Nor does it become public just because it receives public funds. Being public requires and means more. Private interests have no valid claim to public funds, services, facilities, and resources. The producers of wealth in society do not want their wealth handed over to non-public entities, especially unaccountable and lawless non-public entities plagued by corruption, fraud, and scandal. Public funds, services, facilities, and resources—and public authority—must remain in public hands at all times.

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