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Cloaking Inequity: Charter Schools: Who Is Working Together to Improve Them?

During the past decade the number of students in charter schools has nearly tripled, with approximately 3.1 million students enrolled in 2016-17. In fact, one in eight black students now attends a charter in the United States. But while the popularity of charters is growing, so is concernabout charter schools, particularly in the civil rights community and among grassroots educators in teachers unions.

Last summer the NAACP made national news when it called for a charter moratorium until various civil rights concerns were addressed. Other civil rights organizations—including the Journey for Justice Alliance and the Movement for Black Lives—also called for a moratorium on charter schools.

These calls are leading the way for a shift in the national conversation about school choice, and help distinguish privatization and market-based education from real efforts to improve public education.

Last summer the leadership of the National Education Association faced an uprising of sorts from grassroots educators demanding that more critical questions be asked about transparency and accountability for charter schools. In response, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García convened a twenty-one member taskforce on Charter Schools last September, charging members to “fundamentally rethink what NEA policy should be on charter schools.”

This past week, the taskforce delivered their policy statement to a representative assembly at the NEA, and it was overwhelmingly voted into policy by educators from across the United States.

The new policy lays out three criteria charter schools must meet to provide students with the support and learning environments they deserve.

The first is that charter schools should only be authorized by a local and democratically accountable authorizing entity— i.e. a local school district—so that local school officials can closely monitor charter performance, and spread any potential innovations to local public schools.

The statement also calls for an empirical assessment of how a new charter school will serve to improve the local public system before any charter enters a community.

Finally, the statement requires that charter schools comply with the same safeguards and standards that apply to neighborhood public schools such as “open meetings and public records laws, prohibitions against for-profit operations or profiteering, and the same civil rights, employment, labor, health and safety laws and staff qualification and certification requirements.”

Educators at the assembly went further to pass an amendment calling for state and local moratoriums if charter schools do not meet these basic standards. Other amendments included stronger language on protections for special education students and limits on the state-level role in the approval of charter schools.

Market-based school choice supporters have often insisted that teachers’ unions have always been against charter schools.

In fact, Albert Shanker, former President of the American Federation of Teachers union, is credited with popularizing the charter idea as an alternative community-based, teacher-driven approach for the governance of schools in the early 1990s.

As a token academic on the NEA Charter School Taskforce, and in conversations with union leaders and educators, I know that this simplification is far from the truth. In fact, teacher unions have organized tens of thousands of charter school teachers over the years. As a result, the conversations about charter schools inside teachers’ unions are much more nuanced and balanced than market-based school choice supporters would have the public believe.

Market-based education reformers would also have us believe that education reform has been a “mainstream” movement over the past twenty years. Mike Petrilli argued just that in USA Today in response to the NEA’s new policy statement. During the Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Senator Lamar Alexander essentially made the same argument on behalf of charters.

But goals for charters are far from mainstream; they have been strongly influenced by neoliberal ideals for privatization and private control of education in the United States.

Over the past year, civil rights organizations, grassroots educators, and citizen supporters of public schools organized to push back against this direction of charter schools, and to demand a reassessment.

The NEA’s new statement on charters is hopefully a turning point in our national discourse. The public is becoming more and more aware that the common sloganeering that underlies the various private-control and privatization school choice approaches are red herrings, and that educators and the communities that civil rights organizations represent are the experts when it comes to public education

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Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is the Dean and a Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky College of Education. His current res...