Gadfly on the Wall: I Am a Charter School Abolitionist, and You Should Be, Too
After three decades, it should be achingly clear.
Charter schools are a terrible idea.
These types of schools have been around since 1992, a year after Minnesota passed the first law allowing certain public schools to exist under negotiated conditions (or charters).
It works kind of like this. Here are all the rules public schools have to follow in order to be funded by taxpayer dollars – they have to be run by elected school boards, have open records, accept all students from the community, etc. Now here are the tiny set of rules this one particular school has to abide by – it’s charter, if you will.
So there’s one set of rules for authentic public schools and another for each individual charter school.
This means charter schools can be governed by appointed boards of bureaucrats, they don’t have to share their records with the public who are paying the bills, they can even pocket some of that taxpayer money as profit (and in many cases they can still call themselves non-profit). And they don’t even have to accept all students! They can cherrypick whoever is easiest to teach and tell those they rejected that it’s all the result of a lottery – a lottery that they don’t have to share with anyone to prove it was impartial.
No wonder the situation has been a disastrous mess!
Even today they aren’t nationwide. Only 45 states and the District of Columbia have been duped into accepting these schools and even then they enroll just 6% of the students in the country – roughly three million children.
The five states that do not have charter school laws are Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont.
So after 32 years of trial and error, we’re left with a charter school system that does not get better academic results than authentic public schools (despite being given dramatic advantages in their charter agreements) and in many cases drastically fails by comparison. Not to mention all the fraud, malfeasance and ineptitude you get from removing regulations for any Tom, Dick or Harry who thinks he can open a school.
WHAT DEREGULATING PUBLIC EDUCATION GETS YOU
Consider that more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education.
Moreover, 1,779 charter schools (37 percent that receive federal grants) never opened in the first place or were quickly shut down. Since 1994, the federal government has spent $4 billion on these types of schools. Think of how much money has been wasted that could have been put to better use in our much more dependable authentic public schools!
According to a 2010 Mathematica Policy Research study funded by the federal government, middle-school students who were selected by lottery to attend charter schools performed no better than their peers who lost out in the lottery and attended nearby public schools. And this was the most rigorous and expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the US Department of Education to date, yet it found no overall positive benefit for charter schools at all.
None. Nada. Zippo.
In the intervening years, the matter has been studied further with similar results.
A 2016 study found that Texas charter schools had no overall positive impact on test scores and, in fact, had a negative impact on students’ earnings later in life. So if you attended a Texas charter school you probably made less money as an adult than someone who attended an authentic public school.
Even a 2020 study by the charter-friendly Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter schools do not exceed public schools in most areas of the country. In addition, the study found vast variations in the quality of charter schools – some being better and many being much worse than the norm.
According to a 2018 report by IBM Center Visiting Fellow for Evidence-Based Practices, the things charter schools do that have the best academic outcomes are:
Longer school days or academic years
- Zero tolerance and other strict discipline policies associated with rewards and sanctions
- Centering the curriculum on improving test scores and test prep.
Not exactly progress and innovation!
At this point, any sane person has to at least wonder if we should continue having charter schools at all.
Some folks want to try reform. Let’s fix the rules, they say, so that charter schools are more accountable and less prone to fraud and malfeasance.
However, you can’t reform a system that is at its core inequitable. No matter what you do, charter schools will always play by one set of rules and authentic public schools by another. That is fundamentally unjust.
We need better than just reform – we need abolition.
Ask yourself: Why are we allowing charter schools in the first place?
Why SHOULD there be schools paid for with public dollars that don’t have to abide by all the rules?
If there are too many regulations, let’s look at them one-by-one and decide which ones should go and which should stay. But why are we giving special privileges to some schools and not others?
For me, the question is not whether we should have charter schools or not. It’s a question of how best to get rid of them.
I think the best way is as follows.
Many charter schools are private businesses.
They are run by corporations or other private enterprises. In these instances, the schools should be given the choice to stay private or try to transition to the public system. If they choose the former option, they would become authentic private schools.
This would be pretty easy and require no major changes. The charter school could go on exactly as it does now with one exception – it would no longer receive any public money.
It would be just another private school subject to the whims of the free market. The major difference is the public would no longer be bankrolling it.
And speaking of business, time to pay up your debts. Now that you’ve become a private school, you should have to pay the public system back for any major assets you acquired during your start-up phase.
If the school bought any real estate, purchased buildings, etc. when it was a charter school, it should have to pay the taxpayers back. You want to be a private business now and abide by your own rules? Fine. We can work on a payment plan to reimburse taxpayers for these assets. You think you can just walk away free and clear? Uh-uh.
However, the biggest change for a charter school going through such a transition would probably be the need to charge a tuition fee now for students attending. That’s what private schools do, after all.
Perhaps students could get a school voucher or some kind of scholarship tax credit mumbo jumbo (voucher lite) to help fund tuition. I think that’s a terrible waste of tax dollars, too, not to mention unconstitutional, but that’s an argument for another day.
TRANSITIONING BACK TO THE PUBLIC SYSTEM
So that takes care of private businesses. Which only leaves those charter schools who deem themselves public enterprises.
They can try to become authentic public schools (and thus continue to receive taxpayer funding) if they meet certain conditions.
First, they have to start abiding by all those rules they sought to escape when they signed their charter agreements in the first place.
The difficulty of such a transition depends on how much these institutions acted like authentic public schools throughout their existence.
Perhaps they have elected school boards and open meetings. Perhaps they run themselves very similarly to an authentic public school. In that case, wonderful! They can pretty much continue to do so…
…IF – And I do mean IF – the neighborhood public school board agrees to accept the former charter into the district.
But this time the public gets an actual say whether the charter school gets to exist – unlike how the charter was created at the outset.
Today, charter schools are hardly ever a venture proposed by school boards or the public at large. Very rarely does a group of concerned parents or citizens rise up and demand a charter school in their neighborhood.
These are ventures proposed primarily by outsiders who see an opportunity for themselves. Maybe they have only good intentions and want to meet this or that need that they see going unmet by the authentic neighborhood school. But instead of asking the public’s permission to follow their self-appointed plan, they barge in and force the opening of a charter school with the additional tax burden this often requires.
Now that we’ve abolished the state’s charter school law, the choice goes back to the community. Do you want this former charter school to remain in your district? Do you want to incorporate it into the district? Do you want to continue supporting it with tax dollars so long as it abides by all the rules all the other public schools need follow?
If the answer is yes, then the school can stay. And I think it perfectly fair to require a series of public hearings before any decision is made so that the community can be heard on the issue.
However, unlike when the charter school was opened, there is no longer any state charter approval board to oversee this processes. There will be no rules requiring school districts to approve charter schools unless certain conditions are meant.
Local communities are perfectly capable of making up their own minds without any interference from the state government. If this former charter school really is an asset to the community, the school board will vote to keep it. If not, the board will vote to close it.
So that’s it.
Charter schools are fundamentally unfair as proven by decades of waste, fraud, abuse, and a spotty academic record at best.
The only way to balance the scales and provide taxpayers with a fair return on their investment as well as provide every child with a quality education is to abolish this failed experiment.
I know it may seem impossible now, but it probably seemed just as impossible in the early ‘90s when the charter school project began. Now it’s time to undo that mistake.
If things can go wrong, we can set them right again. It just takes rational people of conscience to fight for it.
I invite you to join me and become a charter school abolitionist.
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