Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are managed privately. Growing in popularity across the United States, this public/private hybrid is often presented as one of the solutions to the broken public school system supported by both political parties. Today, over two million or 4.2 percent of students in the US attend charter schools. Yet, there is not much evidence to support such an unprecedented expansion of charters across the United States.
The idea of charter schools originated in the late 1980s and was first introduced by Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. He felt there was a need for teachers “to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were disengaged from school and likely to drop out.” Later on 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.”
Even though there’s little evidence that charter schools are effective, they steadily drain funds that could be going toward improving public schools. In 2009, a study by StanfordUniversity’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) concluded that only 17% of charter schools delivered superior education to their public school counterparts. (CREDO) also showed that performance at approximately half of the charters surveyed were not substantially different and, in fact, about 37% were worse than the traditional public schools.
Charter school problems don’t just revolve around student academic success. Recently, the US Government Accountability Office claimed that charter schools “do not enroll students with disabilities at the same rate as traditional public schools” even though it is required by law. There is also a growing concern among civil rights groups that charter schools can be exclusive and more racially divided. In a Civil Rights Project report it is stated that “charter schools comprise a divisive and segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system.”
How to explain the continued support for an idea that clearly doesn’t work?
In California, philanthrocapitalists like The Waltons (of Walmart) are furiously at work dismantling the public system there and replacing it with privatized charters. In Chicago,Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has been a proponent of charter schools. While closing down over 54 traditional public schools just recently, he aims to “add 60 charter schools in the next five years with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is trying to expand charters across the country.” And most recently in New Jersey, Mark Zuckerberg has donated millions to Governor Christie’s educational reform aimed at expansion of charter schools. According to Huffington Post, “This puts Zuckerberg well in the mainstream of billionaire tech executives like Bill Gates, who pump millions of dollars into efforts to encourage charter schools and put pressure on teachers’ unions.”
Propaganda films like Waiting for Superman pander to both sides of the political fence, promoting charters primarily as a way to attack one of the last bastions of the American labor movement—our teacher unions. This dismal film is part of a far larger effort, a new “economy of knowledge production” fueled by corporate interests hell-bent on siphoning public funds to private pockets. As critics argue, private think tanks are “eclipsing independent university researchers” and sound data is replaced with talking points.
Charter schools do not offer a real equitable choice. Because of their limited space, they segregate a key population that could have made a profound difference in improving the educational experience of all the children in the community. They also take away a meaningful portion of funds that could be used to improve the traditional public schools. Charter schools are not a real choice and should be urgently reconsidered as the alternative to solving public schools’ problems.