Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why I Hate Charter Schools

Educational Cash Cow? (Image by the kirbster)
The California state charter school association just received a $15 million grant from the Walton family with the goal of adding 20,000 new charter school students in Los Angeles and 100,000 statewide, the Los Angeles Times reported this week.

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) already has more charter schools (183) than any other school district in the country and is poised to add many more with the infusion of funds. And the corporate education vultures are already circling, hoping to grab a piece of the carrion.

My niece once asked me why I am so critical of charter schools and I suppose now is as good a time as any to answer her question:

Let’s start with the funding. Why is it that the Waltons have $15 million to give away to private entrepreneurs so they can start private schools funded by taxpayers, but nothing for traditional public schools?

The Waltons are worth $26 billion, according to the latest Forbes 400 list, making them the 10th wealthiest family on the planet. They benefit from some of the lowest personal and corporate tax rates in history, a taxpayer giveaway that not only increases the wealth gap, but starves states of revenue that could be used to improve public schools. Instead, the Waltons can wave their fingers at the “failing” public schools, and appear like generous saviors when they give away a tiny fraction of this wealth to private charters.

Charter schools are often created, funded and run by private corporations with the primary goal of turning a profit, even if that comes at the expense of school safety, supplies, curriculum, pedagogy and teachers’ working conditions. In order to turn a profit, the funding they get from school districts, the state and philanthropies must be greater than their expenditures. In order to make this happen, they generally pay teachers less than district schools pay. However, they also often cut back on academic resources, equipment and infrastructure.

Charter schools receive funding from the districts in which they operate, yet they are allowed to follow different rules than traditional district schools, with less oversight by parents, teachers and community. This sucks money away from districts at a time when they are seeing declining revenues from states and local property taxes. They can (and often do) cherry pick students who they think will perform better on standardized tests to boost their image so they can attract investors and new students. Many push out or block special education students and English Language Learners from enrolling. Traditional public schools must accept all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnicity or physical or mental ability.

Charter schools are used as a wedge to justify the defunding of traditional public schools. As the state of California and city of Los Angeles continually cut education funding, charter schools continually receive large infusions of cash from billionaires like the Walton Family, Eli Broad and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, making them seem more appealing to parents who are frustrated with the crumbling, underfunded traditional schools. As their children transfer from traditional public schools to charters, the public schools lose even more funding, since their funding comes from the state on a per pupil basis, thus further whittling away at their viability.

Charter schools are an ineffective solution to the pseudo-problem of failing schools. First, there have been several studies that indicate that charter schools do not perform any better than traditional public schools and many perform much worse. However, it is also simply untrue that we have a failing education system. What we have is a failing socioeconomic system in which a tiny minority is allowed to possess the overwhelming bulk of the nation’s wealth, while millions are allowed to live lives of privation, want and misery. This is particularly true for children, who are bearing the brunt of the recession. In California, for example, 25% of all children live in families that are suffering food insecurity. Poverty is the single most significant factor in determining academic success (see here, here and here). If we want to end the achievement gap, we must end poverty and close the wealth gap.

Charter schools are exempt from closed-shop policies that exist in many school districts, allowing them to hire nonunion teachers at lower wages. This is not only abusive to their own teachers, but it places a downward pressure on district and community wages, too, as the percentage of higher wage district jobs are replaced by lower wage charter school jobs. Charter schools also tend to hire less experienced teachers and place greater demands on them than other district schools, resulting in higher rates of attrition.

Because charter schools typically operate without union contracts, employees can be fired much more easily and arbitrarily, even for trivial issues like having a political bumper sticker or because an administrator dislikes a teacher’s hair style. This increases the likelihood that teachers will go along with ill-conceived school policies, even when they undermine student success or safety, out of fear of being reprimanded or fired. We can presume that the teacher whistle blowers who spoke out against cheating administrators at Crescendo schools in Los Angeles were particularly courageous. However, they were also unique in that they were members of United Teachers Of Los Angeles (unlike the majority of LA charter school teachers) and had union backed due process protections.

As the number of nonunionized charter schools increases, the percentage of union jobs decreases, thus weakening the labor movement and the collective strength of workers. This is significant not only in terms of the downward spiral of wages, but also in terms of the ability of teachers to fight for the best academic conditions for their students. For example, when teachers unions fight for safer working conditions, they are necessarily fighting for safer learning conditions for students, as well. When teachers unions win higher wages, they make it easier for their districts to hire and retain the best teachers, since teachers will want to work and remain at jobs in which they are well paid.

It is no coincidence that the Waltons are big backers of charter schools. Wal-Mart opposes unionization of its own business and has vigorously resisted organizing efforts at Wal-Mart stores. The same is true for Gates and Broad, the other largest backers of charter schools and privatization. The Times notes that roughly 60% of the state charter association's annual $15-million budget comes from the Michael and Susan Dell, Bill & Melinda Gates, Fisher and Broad foundations.

In other words, the charter movement is largely a billionaire-funded cash cow that has much more to do with corporate profits and union busting than the improvement of educational outcomes for children. Even Goldman Sachs, hedge fund managers and other Wall Street financiers have been getting in on the game, not just for the potential profits to be made, but also to take advantage of the lucrative New Markets tax credit.


  1. You should make this facebook friendly with a "like" button and "share" link.

  2. OMG, I just stumbled on this post while trying to articulate to a friend why I have a distaste for charter schools. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it is I don't like about them, and you said it as clearly as I could ever hope for! Thank you. Capitalism has no place in public education, I'm glad to know there is at least one other like-minded individual.

  3. You are very welcome. How did your friend respond to my piece?

  4. I must echo what Emily wrote. This was exquisitely written, incredibly informative, and the assertions were all well supported. Frustrated with my stagnant teaching career, I simply searched “I hate charter schools”, but did not expect to stumble upon this gem. Thanks, Mr. Dunn!

  5. Thanks Anon.

    I would be interested in hearing about what's going on in your teaching. Where are you teaching and what are some of the issues there?

  6. I forgot to mention how much I admire the brilliant, satirical artwork, Mr. Dunn.
    I was fortunately able to clear the Single English and Multiple TCs in Santa Ana USD by completing 2 years of BTSA, got laid off, searched endlessly for an opportunity anywhere in CA for a year (if I scored an interview, charter school ones were the worst), and currently, finishing up a year in Stockholm, Sweden at an international school. The latter endeavor was both an enlightening and painful sacrifice for the profession. In order to come home, it looks as though I will shamefully sell my soul by accepting a “job” in the private sector in hopes that one day a respectable public school district will be in need of my passionate and dedicated teaching expertise.
    Anyhow, I aim to read more of your informative blogs. You should keep writing.

  7. Thanks again, Anon.

    Your story is unfortunate and all too common these days.

    When I started teaching 15 years ago I was able to walk into the school of my dreams (the lowest performing school in the district, but walking distance from my home), secure an immediate interview and a job offer by that evening. Not only that, but the entirety of my student loan debt was forgiven because I chose to teach at a low income school.

    Teaching jobs were plentiful and the reform movement was infantile, not yet the terrible burden it has become.

    Best of luck in your current job and in finding a good teaching job in the future. Remember, in the private sector we may be selling our souls, but in public education, we are giving them away.

  8. Thank you for your feedback, support, and insight. I can only hope my teaching credentials are not permanently obsolete.

  9. You are very welcome.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!