Charter Schools Are Quintessentially and Irreversibly Private Schools by Design

Despite endless disinformation from charter school promoters that charter schools are public schools, they differ profoundly—legally, organizationally, fiscally, and philosophically—from public schools. They are not the same. The dissimilarities are numerous by design. Calling them “public” 50 times a day does not spontaneously make charter schools public. Nor does receiving public funds automatically make charter schools public under U.S. law. In the U.S. legal system, several other criteria must be met before an entity can be called public proper.1

Unlike public schools, charter schools are governed by unelected private persons, cannot levy taxes, frequently cherry-pick students, are mostly union-free, spend millions on advertising, and regularly hire uncertified teachers.2 Currently, charter school laws in some states and the District of Columbia explicitly permit charter schools to not require any of their teachers to be certified, while other states allow charter schools extensive wiggle room in this regard. Charter school teachers, moreover, are treated as “at will” employees, meaning that they can be fired at any time for any reason. Likewise, charter school teachers are generally not considered public employees, which is why they do not have the same constitutional protections as their public school counterparts. Charter school teachers also generally work longer days and longer years for less money than public school teachers. Many charter school teachers also lack the retirement plans and benefits available to public school teachers. For these and other reasons, the turnover rate of charter school teachers (and students and principals) remains very high, thereby undermining collegiality, stability, and continuity, which in turn damages education.

Another important difference between public schools and charter schools is that charter schools are often owned-operated by large private corporations. Such businesses are notorious for gaming the legal system to maximize profit as fast as possible (e.g., through shady real estate deals and self-serving business contracts). Conflicts of interest are pervasive.

Importantly, as deregulated schools, charter schools are exempt from most laws, rules, statutes, policies, and regulations upheld by public schools. This is why they are considered “independent” or “autonomous” schools. Charter schools are not beholden to the authority of the public school district they are located in. They are typically authorized by charter school authorizers comprised of unelected private persons and they have to pay these entities large sums of money every year.

In addition, non-profit and for-profit charter schools often dodge open-meeting laws, evade audits, and do not provide the range of services and programs offered in public schools. Many charter schools across the country, for example, do not provide meals or transportation. Charter schools typically have fewer nurses than public schools as well. And when it comes to students, charter schools frequently rely on discredited behaviorist (Skinnerian) practices. Such reward-and-punishment behavioral conditioning practices extend beyond infamous “no excuses” charter schools that have come under fire for years. These practices are directed mainly at low-income minority students.

All of this is possible because charter school promoters openly embrace the ideologies of the “free market,” competition, individualism, and consumerism. They routinely and casually refer to parents and students as customers and consumers, not humans or citizens that have rights that belong to them by virtue of being humans and citizens. This survival-of-the-fittest setup compels parents and students to fend for themselves in their quest for a good education. Subjecting parents and youth to the law of the jungle is seen as a healthy thing. In this way, parents and students are guaranteed nothing. Thus, every week thousands of teachers, students, and parents are abandoned by charter schools that fail and close (often abruptly).

This marketization and commodification of education necessarily brings to the charter school sector the same chaos, anarchy, and violence that imbues a “free market” economy. Among other things, such a setup escalates and normalizes widespread fraud, nepotism, and corruption in the charter school sector. It is no surprise that news of arrests of charter school employees appears weekly, sometimes daily, in headlines across the country.

It is worth noting as well that, over the years, courts at many levels and in many jurisdictions have ruled that charter schools, legally speaking, are not public schools; they are not state actors; they are not political subdivisions of the state; they are not state agencies; they are not governmental entities. This is why they do not follow the same laws followed by public schools and cannot levy taxes. Charter schools are private entities established by private citizens. Their control and supervision are not vested in a public authority. They also receive millions of dollars from Wall Street every year. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent agency of the federal government, has also ruled that charter schools are not public schools. The NLRB was established in 1935 and protects the rights of workers in the private sector.

The main reason charter schools are called “public” under the law is to “justify” siphoning billions of dollars a year from constantly-demonized public schools to enrich narrow private interests under the facade of high ideals. This is self-serving to the extreme. It is no surprise that many billionaires and millionaires have promoted, owned, and used charter schools for decades. Even sports celebrities and movie stars own and promote charter schools.

Many realize that the charter school realities and conditions mentioned above violate public education, the public interest, the economy, and the national interest, yet they believe that charter schools can be responsive and susceptible to pro-social reforms. They think that charter schools can be changed for the better—if we just try hard enough. They harbor the illusion that charter schools can be reined in and made to act more responsibly and ethically.

The stubborn notion that charter schools can be improved by regulating them or by changing charter school laws stems from not taking experience seriously and from an aversion to theory and analysis, from a failure to sufficiently theorize the actual relations among the rich, the state, and the law. The class nature of the state remains undertheorized and analytically-challenged. Profundity is missing. “Bad” policy is not cognized deeply as the class policy that it is. Policy-making is seen instead as something neutral or a matter of technical expertise. Consequently, a no-class outlook prevails. It is not enough to simply recognize that charter schools are organized and promoted by major owners of capital; deeper analysis is needed. A robust political economy of charter schools needs to be developed to help open the path forward.

Those who fail to theorize charter schools as a form of savage class war assume that the many problems plaguing charter schools are largely or merely a result of fixable “bad” ideas or “bad” policies emanating from misguided or unenlightened individuals and groups who are presumed to be unaffected by class interests. Such a notion operates anti-consciously. According to this no-class outlook, if only these individuals and groups could just be brought to see how bad things are with charter schools, if only they would seriously consider the vast evidence against charter schools, if only they could be properly persuaded of the ills of charter schools, then “better” ideas and policies could prevail. “Good” policy could then replace “bad” policy and everything would be better. Again, the fundamental relationship between politics and economics is highly undertheorized in this approach to charter schools.

The fact of the matter is that despite being around for over 30 years, problems in the crisis-prone charter school sector, as well as the difficulties these problems have caused for public schools and the public interest, have not abated in any meaningful way. They have only multiplied. So far, no significant lasting pro-social changes in charter school regulations or laws have taken place. Charter schools keep proliferating and wreaking havoc. Scandal and controversy are ever-present. Those who believe that regulations and laws can be passed to restrain charter schools believe that a charter school can be something other than a charter school. Charter schools can supposedly be more like public schools, more accountable, more transparent, less profit oriented, less reckless, less unstable, and less corrupt.

Such forces do not recognize the need new for completely new arrangements imbued with a public authority worthy of the name. They do not see existing political arrangements as irrelevant and obsolete. They overlook or trivialize the need for thorough-going change that favors the general interests of society. Because the antagonism between the neoliberal state and modern requirements is not properly grasped, they believe meaningful pro-social changes can be established through legislatures beholden to the rich. They think that the existing capital-centered political setup can somehow lend itself to ending serious problems caused by charter schools. This usually takes the form of begging or “pressuring” unaccountable politicians for years just for a few crumbs and changes—an exhausting and humiliating process that leaves many burnt out and cynical.

It should be recalled that the first charter school law was established in Minnesota in 1991 and that the neoliberal period began in the U.S. in the early 1970s, well before Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. Charter schools, in other words, emerged firmly in the neoliberal period.

Charter schools have always been a top-down scheme organized by the rich and their political representatives; they have never been a grass-roots phenomenon. It is not the case that charter schools once upon a time started out as a progressive, promising, benign, grass-roots phenomenon but were hijacked by major owners of capital along the way, causing them to become the crisis-prone schools that they are today; they were always a top-down coup of public schools. It is no accident that more than 95% of “innovative” charter schools are not started, owned, or operated mainly by teachers—or that 90% of charter schools have no teacher unions.

In this sense, charter schools are one of many pay-the-rich schemes hatched by the rich and their political representatives under the gloss of high ideals in the context of a continually failing economy. They are a form of state-organized corruption to further enrich major owners of capital in a crisis-ridden economy. The inescapable law of the falling rate of profit constantly coerces major owners of capital to devise new schemes and arrangements to funnel more of the social product created by workers into private hands. This law endemic to capitalism operates with a vengeance and it is why privatization is proceeding rapidly in all sectors and spheres at home and abroad. Major owners of capital are relentlessly targeting every public service and enterprise on every continent.

Obviously, the rich are not going to undermine or eliminate parasitic economic arrangements that help them maximize profits under difficult economic conditions, no matter how damaging this is to the social and natural environment. Their class position does not make them open to reason, logic, evidence, and persuasion. They are not interested in modern arrangements that serve the general interests of society. Objectively, their class will overrides their personal will. Their personal will is subordinated to their class will. Hence the rapid non-stop commodification of education through a variety of “school-choice” schemes over the past few decades. To be sure, privatization is not the result of “bad” ideas or “bad” policies emanating from confused but otherwise “smart” people; it is a direct response to the inescapable law of the falling rate of profit intrinsic to the capitalist economic system.

It is better, healthier, and more effective for parents, students, teachers, education advocates, women, and workers to unite together to end the flow of all public funds and resources to charter schools than to try to “fix them.” This can be done through non-stop collective action with analysis. It can be achieved by making a clean break from the old way of thinking and doing things and by recognizing that the rich can be defeated when people unite and speak up in their own name.

No one is under any obligation to tolerate any arrangements that violate the public interest, harm the economy, and undermine the national interest. Public funds, facilities, services, and resources belong only to the public, not narrow private interests masquerading as “saviors” of low-income minority youth.

Minor legislative “wins” or crumbs here and there are not lending themselves to the kind of affirmation of rights being demanded by the people. The existing authority is only becoming more callous and violent with each passing day, which is why a new independent politics with a new aim is needed. People’s energies are better spent on this than begging and “pressuring” politicians for years for what rightfully belongs to them. A good example of how neoliberal politicians put people in a humiliating position and betray them is the case of charter schools in New York state. Several months ago it looked like politicians in both chambers of the New York state legislature were being responsive to public demands to not raise the limit on the number of charter schools allowed in New York City. But, in the end, neoliberal forces prevailed and a “compromise” (a sellout of the people) was reached to allow more than a dozen additional charter schools to operate in the city. This will further harm public schools while enriching wealthy individuals. People should take these lessons seriously and not view such things as an “acceptable compromise” or “tolerable partial win.” Clearly, a handful of neoliberals are still able to impose their anti-social will on the majority. Where is democracy?

In this regard, an important front in the fight against school privatization is public school boards. In recent years, to their credit, hundreds of public school boards across the country have rejected charter school petition after charter school petition. (Most of these petitions, incidentally, are poorly-written, poorly-formulated, and full of basic writing mistakes.) Public schools and the boards that govern them are not naïve and understand the dangers that charter schools pose to public schools and the public interest. Parents, students, teachers, education advocates, women, and workers can join forces with these boards to further strengthen efforts to say no to charter schools and yes to public education. This starts with consciously tracking the efforts of public school boards opposing charter schools and connecting with them to forge relationships that promote a pro-social agenda that restricts and reverses the anti-social offensive of the rich. This is a two-way street: members of public school boards should also actively seek and forge relationships with all forces defending the public interest. Such unity can become formidable.

In a broader and more general sense, it is important for people from all walks of life to engage in uninterrupted individual and collective investigation and discussion of privatization and its tragic effects on the general interests of society. Ignoring or dismissing such activity will only allow privatization to continue to take a heavy toll on everyone. It will make problems worse. In this regard, teachers, teacher educators, principals, superintendents, higher education workers, and others need to actively put investigation and discussion of privatization on the agenda. Privatization should not be relegated to a secondary issue or a backburner topic. There is a reason why the rich and their political and media representatives work so hard to promote disinformation and block analysis, coherence, investigation, and unity.

Today about 3.7 million youth attend approximately 7,500 charter schools across the country. By contrast, about 45 million students attend the nation’s 100,000 public schools which originated in the U.S. 180 years ago.


1 See Charter Schools Are Not State Actors for a discussion of the many differences between public and private. It is also important to appreciate that, while the state has always been capital-centered, it is becoming more capital-centered over time, especially in the neoliberal period which started in the early 1970s. Neoliberal restructuring of the state has made the state even less public over the past 50 years.

2 Extensive up-to-date evidence for all facts and statements in this article can be found in my articles at Dissident Voice.

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