Our public schools belong to all of us. Charter schools do not.. Charter schools, whether for-profit or nonprofit, are privately held corporations. They are not public schools. They do not belong to us.
For over a decade politicians and those in favor of privatizing public education have told us that charter schools are public schools. As if simply saying it makes it so. The more you repeat it, the truer it is. The truth is charter schools are not public schools. They are private corporations that contract with the government to educate students. Saying that KIPP, Inc., schools for example, are public schools that educate students for us is analogous to saying that Boeing, Inc. is a public factory that builds planes for us. Both are private corporations. Both receive huge amounts of our tax dollars to operate their businesses. Both are accountable to the public by conditions delineated in contracts. Neither is a public enterprise. Just as Boeing, Inc. would struggle without government support, it is doubtful that charter schools would exist at all without public support. Neither Boeing, Inc. nor KIPP, Inc. belongs to the public.
Except for maybe the Gulen Schools, a charter network run by a Muslim Turkish imam, KIPP, Inc. -- the Knowledge Is Power Program, is the largest charter school chain in the United States. KIPP, Inc. schools receive hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year with minimal oversight or accountability. They also receive millions from billionaire foundations. Charter schools are not obligated to accept all children and often "skim" the best and brightest away from neighborhood public schools while refusing to enroll children with special needs. Charter schools do not have elected school boards. Generally, parents are not part of the decision-making process of corporate charter schools. All charter schools are corporations.
Are charter schools better than public schools? The debate continues, but even the most favorable studies say that despite the negative interventions sustained by public schools, only about one-third of charters outperform public schools. Even the fiercest cheerleaders for charter schools have not been able to produce a study that shows the majority of charters outperforming public schools.
Many charter schools segregate low-income and minority students and take them away from their neighborhood while others serve as a "safe haven" for mostly more affluent white children. Portland has both types. Charter schools are often staffed with untrained, non-certified, inexperienced Teach for America-type teachers who stay for a couple of years before moving on to their real careers. Many charter schools pay their "teachers" a salary that is as low as sixty percent of what their counterparts in public schools are paid. Teachers in charter schools, especially those in charter management organizations (CMO), are often forced to follow the company line by a presenting a scripted curriculum and participating in methods of instruction that are harmful to children.
A real danger in creating charter schools, even the proverbial lab schools that union leader Al Shanker had imagined when he first envisioned charters, is that entrepreneurs see them as business opportunities. From Wikipedia:
In 1988, Shanker was the first to propose charter schools in the U.S. He was inspired by a visit to a public school in Cologne, Germany, in which teams of teachers had considerable control over how the school was run, and about what and how to teach. They stayed with each class of students for six years. The schools were integrated by ethnic and economic origins, and were originally intended to focus on the neediest students, drop-outs and those most likely to drop out soon.
In 1993, Shanker turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization. Indeed, the charter schools that were finally established in the U.S. were different from Shanker's vision. "On average, charter schools are even more racially and economically segregated than traditional public schools," according to an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining Shanker's views.
The teacher-created charter that fulfilled the vision of its founding teachers can be sold-out to a CMO that disregards the school's original promise for the corporate cookie-cutter ideal. What if Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City decided to influence organically grown charter schools here in Portland? If you think it couldn't happen, think again.
The real estate angle is one that businesses don't overlook. Public schools, especially those in densely populated urban areas, occupy choice locations. Often charter corporations are given free rent and eventually end up owning prime real estate that once belonged to taxpayers for prices far below market rate. Its like selling off or giving away public land. Charter schools also enjoy tax advantages that aren't available in other business investments.
PAA member Sharon Higgins has been following charter school failures for years. From the beginning, charter schools have been rife with scandal due to lack of oversight. The number of closures is well-documented, and in contrast to public schools, there are many. School closures often leave students scrambling for a public school that can accommodate them. Closures interfere with the educational progress of students, send families into disarray, leave teachers unemployed, and weaken the social fabric of communities.
There is something to be said for Al Shankers original idea of charter schools conceived by teachers. That is, schools that flourish under the leadership and control of teachers. Such schools can exist within the public school system if school boards trust educators to be the professionals the are, and if parents and community members demand such quality schools. Such schools, like the Key Learning Community, are under attack and struggle to survive in this age of standardization and privatization.
Perhaps the best argument against charter schools is that when a school district (or other granting government body) authorizes a charter, it is abdicating its responsibility to provide all children with a quality public school education. It is transferring power to a corporation over which it has little control. The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman gives voice to parents citing problems with charter schools. The entire movie is very informative, but the 25:30 mark highlights parents talking about their troubling charter school experiences.
What might be a better way to educate students? Chile tried to privatize its public schools with disastrous results. Are we on track to do the same in the United States? The choice is up to us. Watch the video below about two very different ways to educate our children. Our Kids, Our Future: Privatization and Public Investment n Education. It really is up to us.