Charter Schools and the Drive for “Choice”

Charter schools have become the key means for privatizing public education and reducing the power of teachers’ unions. They are increasingly favored as the solution for failing schools: Close the bad public school and open a charter in its place. Charter schools are privately run but receive public money and, as already noted, an increasing proportion of them are being run on a for-profit basis. In New York City, hedge fund managers have “adopted” charter schools as their latest trendy acquisitions.

The origins of the charter school movement, however, are more complex. Some early charter schools, such as the City Academy High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, were run by progressive educators and had idealistic goals.

Initially, many corporate education reformers pushed for “vouchers” rather than building charter schools. Vouchers were meant to give parents the ability to take the public funds earmarked for their child’s education and use them toward the cost of private school if they wished. Voucher programs were implemented in some cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland. However, they faced constitutional challenges based on the separation of church and state, because public money was now being funneled directly to religious schools.

Increasingly, education reformers turned away from vouchers to charter schools because they would be less likely to face legal challenges and had a broader potential appeal. NCLB helped change the equation by creating the conditions for the large-scale closing of “failing” schools. Charters began to fill the void. As the charter phenomenon expanded and as the drumbeat about failing schools intensified, many parents started looking at charters as a way out.

Remarkably, though, in the last year the right wing has again begun to promote voucher programs, clearly feeling that the climate is right for an even more open assault on public education. Outrageously, in the budget deal he reached with Republicans earlier this year, President Obama agreed to allow federal funding of Washington, D.C.’s, voucher program, a pet favorite of House Speaker John Boehner. In the past, Obama had consistently opposed voucher programs. Charter schools, which enroll approximately 1.6 million students nationally, remain far more significant overall than voucher programs, which account for around 185,000 students.

We sympathize with those working-class parents who want to get their children out of inner-city schools, and we understand how a charter school can seem like an oasis in the desert. For many it feels like the closest their children will ever get to a private education and a ticket to a better future. At the very least, parents in the poorest areas, often with the worst public schools, feel that their children will be safer at the charter school, where students with behavior problems are routinely kicked or pushed out. For all these reasons, charter schools are understandably popular with many working-class parents. This has been very helpful to the education reform agenda and has allowed the media to present charters as almost a “movement from below.”

The Reality of Charter Schools

Charter schools are overwhelmingly non-union and are staffed by young, idealistic teachers who are worked to death and typically burn out within a few years. Many of them are highly regimented and effectively have the power to choose their students, unlike traditional public schools. Typically, charter schools have fewer special education and English language learner students. Many of them systematically weed out students they don’t want either for behavior reasons or because of poor academic performance.

Yet, despite all the apparent advantages that charters have and the attention lavished on them, a number of studies have concluded they have failed to out-perform comparable public schools.

A 2003 national study by the Department of Education – under George W. Bush – found that charter schools performed, on average, no better than traditional public schools. This conclusion has been confirmed by a range of further studies. The largest study to date was conducted in 2009 by two Stanford economists and financed by the Walton Family and the Eli and Edy Broad foundations: staunch charter supporters. It involved an enormous sample, 70 percent of all charter students. It found that 37 percent of charter schools had learning gains that were significantly below those of local public schools, 46 percent had gains that were no different and only 17 percent were significantly better. Thus, an astonishing 83 percent of charter schools were either no better or actually worse than traditional public schools serving similar populations. Indeed, the authors concluded that bad charter schools outnumber good ones by a ratio of roughly two to one.

The accumulating evidence has led one of the country’s most prominent education scholars, Diane Ravitch, who for years supported Bush’s NCLB and promoted charter schools, to dramatically change her views. In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Ravitch writes, “The evidence says No Child Left Behind was a failure, and charter schools aren’t going to be any better.”

There is, by the way, a real, clearly identifiable reason why charter schools overall do not and will not outperform traditional public schools any time soon. As already stated, they rely overwhelmingly on a high-turnover workforce with relatively little experience that is made to follow orders without question. But considerable research shows that it takes at least five years for teachers to hone their craft and, therefore, in general new teachers can’t achieve the same results as veterans. The public schools, on the other hand, despite also experiencing high turnover still have a greater proportion of seasoned teachers.

Defying all the evidence, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are relentlessly pushing states to lift caps on charter schools. Since charters proliferate in the same areas as closing “failing” public schools, they are concentrated in poor inner-city communities. For example, 30 percent of students in Detroit now attend charter schools.

But the most drastic “experiment” in large-scale privatization using charter schools has been in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration seized the opportunity to close all the city’s schools and fire the entire teacher workforce. In doing this, they of course effectively smashed the New Orleans teachers’ union, a prominent black-led public sector workers’ union in the South.

Fifty-seven percent of the New Orleans schools have now been reopened as non-union charter schools. Last January, Arne Duncan declared on ABC News:

I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans and this is a tough thing to say but I’m going to be really honest. The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster. And it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that we have to do better. And the progress that it made in four years since the hurricane, is unbelievable,” (1/29/2010).

While no one in their right mind would say that the New Orleans schools pre-Katrina were in good shape, this is simply obscene. Approximately half of the student body, mainly those from the poorest neighborhoods, along with their families, have still not returned to the city five years after this man-made disaster. To really find out how the children of New Orleans are doing, Duncan would have to look at the schools of Houston and the other centers of the Katrina diaspora. But he clearly doesn’t care about these details. For Duncan, like Bush, Katrina was simply a golden opportunity to push the privatization agenda.

In some areas like Harlem in New York City, charters have been part of the gentrification process. Particularly provocative in New York is the practice of “co-location,” where charter schools are moved into buildings with existing and sometimes very successful public schools. The charters are lavished with the best of everything and grow by steadily pushing the original school out of its own building! Everywhere the charters create a two-track education system and sow divisions within working-class communities that can only benefit the elite.

Furthermore, some “themed” charter schools aimed at students from different ethnic groups, while motivated partly by the desire to “encourage diversity,” can have the effect of increasing segregation on racial, religious and ethnic lines.

While there are better and worse charter schools, the overall effect of charter schools on the provision of education in poor working-class neighborhoods is negative. With charters draining away the higher-performing students and the students with more actively involved parents, the remaining public schools will become even more of a dumping ground. This is reinforced as students with behavior problems are kicked out of the charters. Where do they go? Back to their neighborhood schools. Even where charters choose students through lotteries, the outcome is still skewed because of their ability to push students out. Claims of higher graduation rates at charter high schools are also suspect since they only include students who made it all the way to the final year – i.e., didn’t get weeded out along the way.

As the charter schools have the intended effects of weakening unions and opening more of education to for-profit operators, there will be less need for the hyper-rich to throw so much money in their direction and they will wind up being just a mediocre, somewhat preferable alternative to the truly deteriorating public schools. The net effect of charter schools in the long run, therefore, will be to further reduce the quality of K-12 education overall.

But there is another and potentially just as serious effect. In the overwhelming bulk of charter schools there is not even the pretense of democratic accountability. Not only is there no teachers’ union but there is no equivalent to the rights that Parent Teacher Associations have in regular public schools. Charter schools play a particular destructive role in undermining the institution of the neighborhood school and creating an education “market” where parents have to shop around for the best school for their child, even if this is far away.

Again we must stress that we do not intend in any way to idealize the reality of public schools today where, for the most part, parents and teachers have very little say. Nevertheless, having a neighborhood public school where parents who lived next to each other could potentially come together and fight for improvements was a real democratic gain for working people. When neighbors send their children to schools all over the place this type of struggle is much harder. The corporate elite is deliberately aiming to undermine and destroy the neighborhood schools precisely because they can become centers for the resistance of working-class communities, especially when teachers, students and parents are united.