By Thomas J. Fiala
The unregulated world of charter schools is about to get another boost if the current ECAA is put into law. We already know how most of our senators and congressional leaders feel about the ECAA, and in this case, charter school expansion and increased funding. Many of us have had to engage supporters of charter schools who are always ready to point out that “not all charters are the same,” and of course, their claim that the charter schools they do endorse are taking the right approach to helping students who are being harmed by those nasty public schools.
Now I want to get this straight from the outset, before you read any farther. I unabashedly support America’s democratic system of public education, regardless of whether a public school is governed by a locally elected school board or a school board appointed by a mayor. Understand, however, that I do not support the process per se for any mayor appointing a school board. This is a bad idea that is being shown again and again to be the wrong approach to meeting the educational needs of communities, large and small. For example, if Chicago is not the poster child for using Rahm Emanuel’s power to destroy public schools, while he sends his children to an elite private school, then I am certainly open to other contenders for the poster. I like a city or any other type community having to elect their public school governing board. This fact alone is going to be foundational in understanding my concerns about the charter onslaught that is increasingly pillaging our public schools across the nation.
First and foremost, charter schools are a scam for those individuals, wittingly or not, who support the neoliberal Friedmanomic educational notions of voucher and choice that circumvent the public school educational process, which has historically been a positive part of our democratic fabric and still needed today. But let’s get down to the nitty gritty as to why charters are problematic in the very least, while an overwhelming number are simply despicable. But first and foremost, I am not going to buy the corporate pro-charter line used by many charter start up supporters that goes like this:
Sure I support public schools, but until public schools solve all their problems, then I am going to proceed with creating my idea of what a charter school is supposed to look like! I know charters have problems but so do public schools!
Now for those pro-charter folks using this line, I am going to school you a little – or maybe a lot! First and foremost, the wonderful and courageous part about our public schools is that they nobly take on the challenges facing the United States. These schools reflect the larger society, and all the wonderful aspects of that society – and all the ills of that society. Our public schools DO NOT require a student and parent to sign a contract that has requirements and rules that if violated means that the student can rather easily be removed and then – of course – be sent back to the good old public school! So, let me be straight with anyone reading this. If your charter school requires a contract signed by a parent and child, and if that contract states that the child can be removed from the charter, which of course implies the child will head back to the regular public school, then that is one of the many reasons I think charters are just flat out wrong!
Let’s flip this around a little. Would it be a good idea for public schools to be allowed to engage in this same practice? Certainly, a student can be expelled from a regular public school. However, the process is simply not the same, as we all know – and that WE includes charter supporters! Public schools must not be easily used as a place for charter school castoffs! This is particularly true when neoliberal charter supporters claim that competition is key to improving education. That’s not competition. That’s stacking the deck!
Let’s look at this issue in another way. For example, it seems that America’s media certainly worries more about underinflated footballs at the Super Bowl being competitively unfair than it does when it comes to unfair educational competition and America’s traditional public schools! So charter supporters, become as noble as the public schools and do not use these contracts to avoid the complex challenges facing our public schools that go beyond the walls of the school! What’s really amazing is that when looking at the big picture, overall, charters do not outperform the regular old public schools! Of course, as we will see later, there’s plenty of cash in “them thar hills” when it comes to charter schools!
Another basic issue that cannot be tolerated in my opinion, is that charter school governing boards are not accountable to the public in the same way regular public schools are. A group that gets together, then gets a school charter and appoints a governing board that is immune from public scrutiny – and then is at the public trough syphoning dollars away from the regular public schools – is not an example of democracy in action. Certainly the neoliberal Milton Friedman would have defined this as democratic in nature – but I don’t! If a school governing board takes public money – then the school governing board must be transparent and accessible in a public manner. Not just accessible to the specific clientele that is part of the charter school of which this board governs! This is an intolerable action!
Understand, all this CANNOT – I repeat CANNOT – be construed in any way as being an INNOVATIVE educational approach to improving education! And, of course, we always hear that this is what charters are supposed to be all about – INNOVATION free from the constraint placed on regular public school! I believe that if a charter school does NOT address these two major ways of doing business — 1) contracts and 2) transparency and real public accountability while taking public money — then the charter should not be allowed to exist. I am not about to acquiesce to those who want to create, in effect, private schools with public money! And I am NOT about to buy the claim that this is an example of educational INNOVATION!
So here we end part one of the Wild, Wild, World of Charters! Stayed tuned for more regarding this particular attack on our democratic institution of public schools.
Part II: The Wild, Wild, World of Charter Schools – The Attack of the Walmartians!
Part III: The Wild, Wild, World of Charter Schools – The Plague of Corruption