The case against charter schools

One of the main goals of the new administration, expanding charter schools, has support from a broad political spectrum, including conservative Republican Newt Gingrich, who toured with Rev. Al Sharpton late last year as special envoys from the president to promote charter schools. “If we could come together on education, I think it’s an example to the kids that some things should be above our differences,” commented Sharpton on the partnership between Gingrich, Sharpton, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.1

Charter schools are publicly funded but governed by institutions outside the public school system, including businesses, non-profit organizations, universities, and groups of individuals who write a charter and get it approved. About one quarter of charter schools are run by for-profit companies known as Education Management Organizations (EMOs), while non-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) and other groups such as universities run the majority.

The number of charter schools is growing rapidly. From only a handful of schools in the early 1990s, by 2009 there were more than 5,000 charter schools operating in forty states and the District of Columbia, enrolling more than 1.5 million students.2

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools boasts, “Today, a record 14 communities have more than 20 percent of their public school students enrolled in public charter schools, eight more than the number from just three years ago. Additionally, 72 communities now have at least 10 percent of public school students in charter schools, 27 more than three year ago.”3

Charter schools would not have been able to expand so rapidly in so many cities if they were not tapping into widespread, genuine, and justified frustration with the state of our traditional public schools. Proponents have presented them as a solution to the racism and poor quality of education in our public schools. They claim that charters promise access, equity, excellence, and accountability; that they will empower parents with choice and a voice in their children’s education; and that they will close the “achievement gap” between white students and students of color.

But after a decade of significant charter school growth, research and experience from around the country show that these schools are failing to serve students with the greatest needs, disrupting communities, increasing racial segregation of schools, and introducing new kinds of corruption into education, all while producing similar or worse educational outcomes than public schools. The evidence is mounting that placing education in the hands of unelected privately run organizations is a disaster for students, teachers, and communities.

Equity and access 
On the surface, the existence of different kinds of schools for parents to choose from would appear to provide more opportunities for disadvantaged students. In fact, quite the opposite is the case, as an important study from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Civil Rights Project explains. It’s worth quoting the study at length:

The ability to choose assumes ready exposure to available school options. Research suggests that families’ access to the educational marketplace is unequally constrained by a number of factors, including contact with advantaged social networks, … language barriers, socioeconomic status and the ability of parents to arrange transportation for their schoolchildren. Education studies both in the U.S. context and abroad… all highlight a basic point. Unrestricted choice results in stratification.

Take, for example, the application process for a new charter school. A parent or student must first hear about the charter program, which is dependant on the extent to which the new school has conducted outreach and advertising, whether materials were available in multiple languages, and/or if an encounter with another parent or contact provided information about the charter. The family must then navigate the application process, which often involves a lottery but also can mean a combination of other requirements like testing, teacher recommendations, parental involvement commitment or essays. If the student is accepted, then transportation to and from the school may have to be provided by the parent.

On the other side of the process… significant private investment augments public support for charter schools. Targeted recruitment of students could help charter schools accomplish achievement promises made to these private funders. It follows that school choice… will almost always exacerbate inequality.4

One effect of charters’ drive to improve their test scores is that students with disabilities are systematically marginalized. Moreover, the pressure to reduce costs means that they often don’t employ the extra staff necessary to serve special education students. In 2009, students with disabilities attending charter schools in Los Angeles made up 7.6 percent of the overall charter student population, but 11.3 percent of the overall student population attending district-operated schools. During the 2008-2009 school year, just 8.1 percent of Los Angeles charter schools offered a special day program for students with disabilities. In contrast, 87 percent of district-operated schools provided this same program option.5

In Boston, charter schools were able to outperform their public counterparts by excluding special education students and students whose first language was not English. According to a 2009 Boston Globe report, nearly one-fifth of public school enrollees were English-language earners, whereas English-language learners were only 4 percent of charter enrollees.6 A 2009 study conducted by the Massachusetts Teachers Association found that more than half of students enrolled in the previous five years in charter schools never made it through graduation, reinforcing the argument that charters tend to weed out poorer performing students in order to boost their academic standings.7

Another serious concern is the increase in racial segregation associated with charter schools. UCLA’s Civil Rights Project study found higher levels of segregation for Black students in charter schools than in public schools, even though public school segregation has been growing steadily for two decades.8 Other studies have documented increased racial segregation due to “school choice” programs in North Carolina and New Jersey.9

Unlike magnet schools that were established to further school integration by bringing students from different parts of a city together, charter schools tend to further segregation because they make enrollment decisions without regard to the impact on the school system as a whole. Thus the “market-oriented model of choice” tends to further segregate students (in what is already a segregated school system) based on resources, abilities, language, and race.10

Charter schools aim to prove their success on the basis of test scores. And charters have a number of advantages that one might expect to lead to better scores than traditional public schools—“creaming” of better students, smaller class sizes, and additional resources from private sources. But even on the narrow measure of standardized testing, charters are not achieving “excellence.”

A 2003 national study by the Department of Education under George W. Bush found that charter schools performed, on average, no better than traditional public schools.11 The study was initially suppressed because it hadn’t reached the desired conclusions. Another study by two Stanford economists involved an enormous sample, 70 percent of all charter students. It found that an astonishing 83 percent of charter schools were either no better or actually worse than traditional public schools serving similar populations. Indeed, the authors found that bad charter schools outnumber good ones by a ratio of roughly 2 to 1.

The study concluded that, “in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS [traditional public school] counterparts. Further, tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face.”12

Writing in the New York Daily News, Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and once a staunch supporter of charters, noted:

Charter schools have participated in the federal testing program since 2003. Charter school students have never outperformed students in regular public schools, except in isolated instances. In 2007, charter students had lower scores than students in regular public schools in fourth-grade reading, fourth-grade mathematics and eighth-grade mathematics. Only in eighth-grade reading did charter school students score the same as their peers in regular public schools.13

Why are charters unable to soar ahead of public schools in their academic results? For the quarter of charters that are run for profit, a focus on the bottom line compromises educational quality. When states hand money to private companies, their profit margin is the difference between the state funds and what they spend to provide the education. It stands to reason that if they can cut costs, a policy that tends to lower the quality of education, they can make more money. In Ohio, where more than half of the state’s charter money goes to for-profit companies, charters drastically lag behind traditional public schools. Only 8 percent of charters received a rating of excellent or effective, compared to 63 percent of public schools.14

And the quality of education at all charter schools is compromised by the fact that charter school teachers on average have far fewer years of experience than teachers at traditional public schools. Without the protection of strong unions, charter school teachers are more likely to become burned out and driven from the profession.

In a 2009 study, researchers found a turnover rate of 25 percent among charter school teachers as compared with 14 percent among public school teachers. They found that the odds of a charter school teacher leaving the profession versus staying in the same school are 132 percent greater than those of a public school teacher. The “turnover gap,” according to the study, was a not a result of charter schools getting rid of “underperforming” teachers, but rather less-experienced teachers voluntarily leaving the profession.15

Nevertheless, there will be instances and locations where charter schools will be able to outperform traditional public schools due to their greater resources and more selective admissions. Regardless of test score results, charter schools’ business model for education is not compatible with truly deep and meaningful learning. And the advantages that come with increased resources should be extended to all students—not just a select few.

Parent and community empowerment 
The promise of parent empowerment has been one of charter schools’ major tools in getting support for their agenda. Undoubtedly, parents have been mobilized to push for charter school expansion, and many charter school parents are involved in their children’s schools. But truly empowering parents with a voice in the school system would run counter to the neoliberal goals of centralizing control over schools, introducing corporate forces into education, and gentrifying poor communities.

Before Arne Duncan’s Renaissance 2010 plan, Chicago public schools had a remarkable mechanism for parent and community input—Local School Councils (LSCs). LSCs have played an important role in resistance at several of the schools slated for closure under Renaissance 2010. Because they were a potential obstacle to his plan, Duncan publicly stated in April 2007 that he wanted to break the “monopoly” of the LSCs, and in a speech to Chicago business leaders, then-Board of Education President Rufus Williams likened LSCs running schools to having a chain of hotels being run by “those who sleep in the hotels.”16 If it is successful in dismantling the LSCs, Renaissance 2010 will have destroyed what is “probably the most radical school reform in the country and … the largest body of elected, low-income people of color (especially women) in the United States.”17

In Los Angeles, Green Dot charter schools organized the Los Angeles Parents Union (LAPU) to push for an expansion of charter schools. The LAPU renamed itself “Parent Revolution,” yet parents who don’t agree with their point of view are locked out of LAPU meetings.18

Green Dot’s unelected board of directors recently announced a decision to close one of its high schools, known as “Ánimo Justice” in South Los Angeles. CEO Marco Petruzzi claimed that budget constraints made the closing necessary, and that Ánimo Justice was chosen “because it has not equaled other Green Dot schools in performance and enrollment.”19

In subsequent days, four hundred Green Dot students held a sit-in on their campus, and students and parents organized a march and rally. Exasperated parents demanded to talk with Green Dot’s CEO and school officials, but were turned away. The “Parent Revolution” group was nowhere to be found. “Green Dot promised us a quality education and a democratic school where our voice counts,” said one parent. “So why is our school being shut down with no parent and student say?”20

While the voices of parents and teachers are marginalized, some people are feeling very much empowered by charter schools. A recent New York Times article showed the enthusiasm of New York’s exclusive club of hedge fund managers for investing in charter schools. As theTimes explained,

[I]t is impossible to ignore that in New York, hedge funds are at the [charter school] movement’s epicenter. The schools are “exactly the kind of investment people in our industry spend our days trying to stumble on,” [hedge fund manager Ravenel Boykin] Curry said, “with incredible cash flow, even if in this case we don’t ourselves get any of it.”… The reference is to the fact that New York State contributes 75 to 90 percent of the amount per student that public schools receive.21

The attack on unions 
The growth of charter schools has caused a marked decrease in the number of teachers represented by unions. To cite two examples, United Teachers of New Orleans lost all 7,500 of its members after Hurricane Katrina, and the Chicago Teachers Union has lost 6,000 of its 31,000 members because of the growth of charters under Renaissance 2010.

The attack on teachers’ unions is a major assault on the labor movement, in a place where there is tremendous potential for “social justice unionism” to emerge through the organic connections between teachers and communities. The weakening of their unions will mean thousands more teachers who become overworked and burned out, with lower pay and fewer benefits. This attack will have a strong negative impact on the quality of education that most children receive.

The best enhancers of educational success are the quality of the teaching staff, which is a product of its education and experience, and which must be valued and remunerated to sustain the educational system properly; the educational level of the parents and their ability to spend time aiding in their children’s education (which naturally favors middle-class and wealthy families); adequate funding to support small class sizes and good physical plant and educational materials; a varied, stimulating curriculum; and a good, sufficiently large support staff. A public or charter school will be a good school to the extent that these conditions are met. Changing the way in which schools are administered changes none of these things. What’s left is this: that expanding charter schools is an effective means to weaken teachers’ unions, which is certainly not a means to improving education for the majority.

  1. “Newt discusses education with Arne Duncan and Al Sharpton on Meet the Press,” transcript,
  2. Center for Education Reform, “National charter school and enrollment statistics 2009,”
  3. Lee Sustar, “The war on public-sector unions,” Socialist Worker, November 6, 2009.
  4. Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, “Equity overlooked: Charter schools and civil rights policy,” UCLA Civil Rights Project, November 2009, 6-7.
  5. “Pilot study of charter schools’ compliance with the modified consent decree and the LAUSD special education policies and procedures,” Office of the Independent Monitor for the Modified Consent Decree, June 5, 2009.
  6. James Vaznis, “Charter schools lag in serving students with special needs, Boston Globe, August 12, 2009.
  7. James Vaznis, “Charter schools see more attrition, union study finds,” Boston Globe, September 16, 2009.
  8. Frankenberg and Siegel-Hawley, “Equity overlooked.”
  9. Chad d’Entremont and Charisse Gulosino, “Circles of influence: How neighborhood demographics and charter school locations influence student enrollments,” National Council for the Study of Privatization in Education Research Publication #160, 2008, and Robert Bifulco, Helen Ladd, and Stephen Ross, “Public school choice and integration: Evidence from Durham, North Carolina,” #172, 2009.
  10. Frankenberg and Siegel-Hawley, “Equity overlooked.”
  11. National Assessment of Educational Progress, “America’s charter schools: Results from the NAEP 2003 pilot study,” National Center for Education Statistics, November 2003.
  12. Center for Research on Education Outcomes, “Multiple choice: Charter school performance in sixteen states,” Stanford University, June 2009.
  13. Diane Ravitch, “The charter school problem: Results are much less positive than a new study suggests,” New York Daily News, September 27, 2009.
  14. Amy Hanauer, “Profits and privatization: The Ohio experience” in Dingerson, et al., eds., Keeping the Promise? The Debate over Charter Schools (Milwaukee:Rethinking Schools, Ltd., 2008), 35.
  15. David A. Stuit and Thomas M. Smith, “Teacher turnover in charter schools,” Research Publications of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education # 183, 2009.
  16. Jitu Brown, Eric (Rico) Gutstein, and Pauline Lipman, “Arne Duncan and the Chicago success story: Myth or reality?” Rethinking Schools, Spring 2009.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Robert D. Skeels, “Why school choice plan is a bad idea for the district,” Daily News Los Angeles, August 22, 2009.
  19. Howard Blume, “Green Dot to close Justice Charter High School,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2010.
  20. Robert D. Skeels, “Taking on a charter school closing,” Socialist Worker, March 26, 2010.
  21. Nancy Hass, “Scholarly investments,” New York Times, December 6, 2009.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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