Gadfly on the Wall: Why Even the Best Charter Schools are Fundamentally Inequitable
Not MY charter school!
That’s the usual reaction from charter school fans to any criticism of the industry.
I say many of these institutions lack accountability about how tax dollars are spent…
Not MY charter school!
I say they waste millions of taxpayer dollars to duplicate services already in existence….
Not MY charter school!
I talk about frequent scandals where unscrupulous charter school operators use copious loopholes in state law to enrich themselves without providing services to parents, students and the community…
Not MY charter school!
I mention charter school lotteries, cherry-picking students, not providing adequate special education services, zero tolerance discipline policies, teaching to standardized tests, targeting black and brown kids for profit and feeding the school to prison pipeline….
Not MY charter school! Not MY charter school! Not MY…
If the industry is subject to this much malfeasance and corruption, doesn’t that reflect badly on the entire educational model – even the examples that avoid the worst of it?
One model has daily scandals. The other – authentic public schools – is far from perfect but relatively tame by comparison. You can’t blame people for generalizing.
Okay. We get it!
But sadly this defensiveness against any criticism hides an enormous ignorance of exactly what charter schools are and how they operate at the most basic level.
Yes, there is a difference between how the best and worst charter schools act.
Yes, there are some charter schools that are run much better, more humanely and responsibly than others.
But that doesn’t mean the very concept of a charter school isn’t rotten to the core.
It’s like colonialism.
Yes, there were colonies where the invaders treated the conquered with more respect and dignity than others.
But not a single colony was a good thing. Not a single colonial enterprise avoided subjugating people who should have been free to determine their own destinies.
The same goes with charter schools.
When I discuss the industry, it’s surprising how many people – especially supporters of the enterprise – don’t understand what charter schools really are.
Let’s start with a simple definition.
A charter school is a school with a charter.
And a charter is a contract – a special agreement with the state or some other governmental entity that this school can exist.
Why is that necessary?
Because there are rules laid out by each state in their school codes detailing what schools must do in order to qualify for taxpayer funding.
For example, under normal circumstances they must have an elected school board made up of members from the community where the school is located.
All authentic public schools must follow these rules. But not Charter schools.
Instead, they get to follow whatever rules are set down in their charter.
So without even examining exactly which special rules are stipulated in that charter, these schools are founded on the very concept of privilege.
They get to abide by their own rules tailor-made just for them.
Why does that matter? Because they get public funding.
And, yes, ALL charter schools are publicly funded – they get at least part of their money from taxpayers, usually all or the majority of their funding.
That opens a huge divide in accountability between types of schools.
On the one hand, authentic public schools are publicly funded but required by law to be run by elected members of the public. You pay your taxes and you get a say in how those taxes are spent.
However, many states allow charter schools to avoid this stipulation. They can be run by appointed boards or other functionaries that taxpayers have no say in hiring.
It’s a common feature of most charter agreements and often exploited.
You pay taxes and have no say in how that money is spent at these charter schools.
Parents of students enrolled in the school can vote with their feet and remove their kids if they don’t like the direction the school is taking. But the overwhelming majority of taxpayers don’t have kids in the charter school – they might not have kids at all. But their money is still being collected and their voice is silenced.
That is fundamentally unjust.
In fact, it’s one of the main reasons given for the American colonies fighting a war with Great Britain. No taxation without representation.
And most charter schools are guilty of it.
But not all!
There are charter schools run by elected school boards. They either choose this management system though it is not required by their charter or their charter explicitly requires it – like any other taxpayer funded school.
Does this excuse these charter schools from the same inequities as their more privileged brethren?
And this is an important point.
How does a charter school open in the first place?
Most authentic public schools were started many years ago by the communities where they operate.
Community members got together, agreed they needed a school, elected board members to manage it, collected tax money, etc.
Charter schools are much newer inventions that come about differently.
Instead of starting with a community, they start with a charter operator. This could be a single individual, a group, an organization or a corporation.
The operator then goes to the state, community or usually school district where they propose to open the charter (it depends on the state charter law) and puts forward a proposal. Then the state, community or board decides to approve or deny that proposal.
However, nearly every charter school law does not give local communities an unlimited right of refusal. After all, if they did, there would be hardly any charter schools in existence.
Think about it.
When an authentic public school district decides to open a charter school inside its borders, it is agreeing to give a portion of the tax dollars it already receives to the charter school. It is agreeing to run its existing schools on less money so the charter can open up.
Why would any authentic public school do this? Only if it saw a real need for a new school and did not want to open a new school, itself. That’s a pretty rare situation.
However, nearly every charter school law gives very narrow reasons that new charter applications can be refused. So most of the time, the district has no choice but to approve these proposals. And if a district does refuse, the matter often goes to a state charter approval board which almost always reverses the decision. The community says no – state functionaries say yes.
So even when one of these so-called good charter schools managed by an elected school board opens up, it does so by overruling the decisions of the community it serves.
Charter schools create burdens for their communities. They siphon tax dollars from the existent public schools without reducing costs by much at all. So the authentic public school board is forced to make a hard decision – cut services for students and run with their reduced tax revenue or increase taxes to make up the difference.
Charter schools equal higher taxes in districts that can afford it and a reduction in educational quality in those districts that can’t.
This is a situation the community did not ask for. The community did not demand a new charter school. A handful of charter operators did to enroll a handful of students.
This is not fair.
And, yes, it applies to every charter school.
School choice is based on lack of choice in the first place.
However, my favorite response from charter school fans is that their school doesn’t have any special agreement at all.
Their school has no charter.
It’s like saying your ice cube isn’t cold, or your fire isn’t hot.
What is a charter school without a charter? Not a charter school.
If there really is such an institution out there, I would say it is a charter school in name only. Best to rename it as an authentic public school just for the sake of accuracy.
And if anyone does find a yellowed document for one of these schools labeled “charter,” best to tear it up. You don’t need it since your charter school has no need of special agreements.
Keep in mind, this is long before we get into the specifics of how charter schools can (and often do) exploit children and communities.
If the very existence of your school is predicated on the existence of a charter agreement, that is inequitable.
It does not need to follow all of the rules that authentic public schools must.
These are rules about being accountable for how you spend tax dollars, having minimum academic standards, hiring qualified staff, etc.
If there really are some rules that charter schools should be freed from obeying, why not just free all taxpayer funded schools from these rules? You don’t need a special agreement. You need to renegotiate the state school code.
Otherwise, this is giving special treatment to some schools rather than others.
That is the point.
Charter schools – ALL CHARTER SCHOOLS – are inequitable by definition and design.
It is an unjust system.
And no amount of defensiveness will avoid this truth.
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