Unfortunately, charter schools never lived up to this promise, and today the charter movement portrays itself as an alternative to public education. There are nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, and many operate more or less autonomously from the public school system. Although some states (including Tennessee) do not allow for-profit charters, 16 percent of charter schools in the United States are for-profit entities. Michigan has the most, with 70 percent of its charters functioning as for-profits.
The failure of charter schools to become laboratories for public school improvement wasn’t entirely accidental. When Reed Hundt, head of the Federal Communications Commission, approached former Secretary of Education William Bennett in the late 1980s to support legislation to provide Internet infrastructure to public and private schools, Bennett refused. He explained that he did not want to give public schools additional resources because “he wanted them to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.”
In other words, even at the beginning of the charter movement, powerful interests saw charters as a tool for privatizing public education. That’s especially true now.
Current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has a long history of promoting charters, vouchers, and other forms of public school privatization, or what she and other advocates now call “school choice.” In her home state of Michigan, she used her family’s wealth and political connections to lobby for voucher policies that allowed students to use public funding for private school tuition, an experiment that has been an abysmal failure. A 2016 report by the Education Trust-Midwest noted that Michigan had gone from being “a fairly average state” in elementary reading and math to now ranking in the bottom 10 states. This study concluded that Michigan’s educational system was “among the weakest in the country and getting worse.”
It is clear that DeVos wants to replicate the Michigan experiment across America. In a list of eleven priorities published by the Education Department in October, the number one priority was school choice. DeVos can go far in achieving that goal, even without help from Congress. As Education Secretary she can channel roughly $1 billion in grant money to charter schools each year.
Over time DeVos and other privatization proponents have changed their rhetoric from promoting charters as a way to enhance school quality to emphasizing “choice.” There’s good reason for that change. We now have more than enough evidence to reject outright the claim that charters are generally higher performing than public schools, and Michigan is not the only state to have had that experience. Indiana has aggressively expanded its charter and voucher school programs, even though test scores in those schools have remained lower overall than scores in Indiana’s traditional public schools. Further, charters in Indianapolis are far more racially segregated than nearby public schools, a problem found in many parts of the country, particularly Minnesota, which authorized the first American charter school in 1991.
Until very recently, the charter industry boldly proclaimed that it was the answer to the problem of racial inequality in school performance. Test data never supported that assertion. We also know that charters sometimes try to boost their test scores by denying admission to special education students and other academically struggling children, and charters often expel students for fairly minor offenses, especially when these young people are not doing well in the classroom. Some charter schools have startling rates of student attrition and teacher turnover. New York State reported that 15% of its charter schools lost over half of their teachers in a one-year period. Teachers in charters generally have fewer years of experience and often receive lower pay than their counterparts in public schools, factors that correlate with poorer quality instruction.
In 2016 the NAACP called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools, emphasizing concerns about increased racial segregation and inequality of opportunity in areas where charters exist. The organization also noted that charter schools were diverting funds intended for nearby public schools, thus destabilizing those schools and the neighborhoods they serve.
The channeling of taxpayer dollars to charter schools is posing challenges for public schools across America. In Stinesville, Indiana, the opening of a charter school resulted in the community losing its only elementary school because the new charter siphoned off enough of Stinesville Elementary’s students to make it impossible for the school to operate financially. Ironically, Stinesville was the highest scoring elementary school in its district. Last year 74.4 percent of its students passed both English/language arts and math tests, compared with 37.4 percent passing in the charter school that forced the public school’s closure. Now the “choice” facing parents is whether to send their children to the lower performing charter school or to a public school in a neighboring town.
Some charter schools have been guilty of misuse of taxpayer funds. For example, an online charter in Ohio called the Electronic School of Tomorrow suddenly closed this year, owing the state almost $80 million for inflating enrollment numbers and other charges. It is estimated that this charter school cost Ohio over a billion dollars in the 16 years it operated. Although similar problems have occurred elsewhere, Ohio’s loose oversight has made that state particularly vulnerable.
With all of the evidence against charters, one other fact is especially important. Not only do charters perform worse than traditional public schools, but for-profit charters fare worse than other forms of charter schools, particularly on reading and math test scores.
Here’s why that’s significant. I believe the goal of DeVos and other charter advocates is to convince Americans of the superiority of the charter model by advertising selected charter successes and then convert as many schools as possible into for-profit entities, ignoring the fact that the for-profit model has been a complete failure.
The goal of using public school funding to generate profits for deep-pocketed investors may be a dream come true for President Trump, Secretary DeVos, and Wall Street, but it would be disastrous for our children.
My dream would be this. Republicans would quit trying to undermine public schools and provide wealthy donors with taxpayer dollars intended for the education of our children. Democrats would stop being so smug about their belief in climatology and evolution and acknowledge that there is a well-established science of education too. Elected officials from both parties have ignored the expertise of educators and chosen instead to promote unproven armchair theories.
It’s time to return control of our public schools to educators, students, parents, and communities. Politicians know little to nothing about education and are too easily influenced by money and powerful individuals who aren’t really interested in what’s best for our children. Their promotion of charter schools is ample proof of that.
Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator.