Stock market analysts have long suggested that US education is ripe for privatisation and profit. An education system serving the needs of the free market with students seamlessly transferring to the workplace and run by private interests has already happened with health and other public services pushing public money into private hands.
The pioneers of the charter school movement had a strategy to create schools that prove creativity, individual attention and curricular relevance are the roots of good education and that these models could be shared to reform public education to empower the powerless. This educational campaign was successful and the first schools opened in the early 1990s.
A charter school is any school that is publicly funded publicly, governed by institutions outside the public school system. A company, a non-governmental organization, a university, or any group of people who write a charter can become autonomous from a public school board and control the budget, curriculum, and select the group of students in a school.
One quarter of charter schools are run by for-profit operators (called EMOs, Educational Management Organizations), but most are run by non-profit entities (usually grouped under CMOs, Charter Management Organizations.)
Billions of dollars have been invested in charter schools by the private sector and have been used politically by both sides as part of an educational campaign to shift the blame for bad schools onto “bad management” and to justify the underfunding of public schools. This has led to a continuing rise in the number of charter schools across the country.
Due to the power of educational campaigns, including persuasion from organisations including the Gates Foundation, independent charter schools now have standardization of a curriculum nationally, merit pay for teachers based on their students test scores and longer school days.
Not all charter schools are rejected. Some were created on the genuine initiative of community members or teachers and parents and students are undoubtedly learning in a better atmosphere than they were before. These schools are used to deflect criticism of the dominant, corporate trend in the charter school movement.
The growth in charter schools has led some to believe the entire school system will be broken apart and privatised. Charter schools have dismantled the power of teachers’ unions, and they are also accused of being excellent tools for channelling public money into the pockets of enterprising individuals, even if run by non-profit companies.
The main objection to charter schools is that the drive to make a profit will compromise educational quality as the pressure mounts to expand and cut costs to turn more profit. Bigger rates of return could be created from poor maintenance of the school and its equipment, low pay for all staff including teachers and larger class sizes all creating educational risk.
Non-profit organisations are known to contract out their services to for-profit firms who may be run by the same owner. For-profit corporations create non-profit foundations to obtain the charters, and then hire themselves to run the schools. Whether it’s technically legal is debatable.
The charter schools that do well, have a higher rate of funding. Poor quality public schools are underfunded, but the poor quality is used as a strategy for removing public education instead of an argument for equitable funding.
Charters are also selective. They are more likely to exclude English language learners and special education students. Conditions of admission at some schools are very competitive and while some charter schools who receive federal funds cannot be competitive, these schools can select their students and transfer or expel students with less due process than they are afforded in regular schools.
Charters schools are measured by the same standardized tests that all schools are, and are under pressure to “teach to the test” for best exam results. Teachers are under pressure to deliver results or lose their job. Some studies have found charter schools’ performance is no higher than that of public schools in every demographic category, though reviews are mixed.
The only way to challenge charter schools is to show they are a stepping stone to privatization, denying publicly funded education as a basic right for all. Public education suffers not because it is public, but because it is poorly funded by states with other priorities. A new strategy, including an educational campaign against funding corporate handouts is required.
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