Charter Schools Destroy Democracy

The story of charter schools in Washington State is intense. It spans several introductions in the Legislature, involves the voting down of the approach by citizens three times, is foisted up by education organizations and politicians bank-rolled by large foundations that are dismantling public schools across the United States, and generally disregards the education and well-being of students beyond their roles as tokens in the struggle.

The Challenge

Yesterday, an editorial was published in the Seattle Times by an editor of Rethinking Schools who is an education faculty at the University of Washington-Bothell. Dr. Wayne Au writes,

Charters underserve English-language learners and students with disabilities; they do not keep accurate track of student data, such as who is on free and reduced lunch; their governing boards regularly lack public accountability; they have also reached levels of racial segregation not seen since before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that legally ended “separate but equal” schooling — prompting the NAACP to issue a statement in 2010 opposing charter schools.

This is a large part of my active discouragement of these places at every turn: Charters are the wolves in sheep’s clothing, being pitched by businesspeople in farmer’s costumes. They are insidious for many reasons, several that go beyond the professors concerns. In a report from the Institute of Education Sciences of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, a part of the US Department of Education, it was stated that,

On average, charter middle schools that held lotteries were neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving math or reading test scores, attendance, grade promotion, or student conduct within or outside of school. Being admitted to a study charter school did significantly improve both students’ and parents’ satisfaction with school.

This means that charters are more effective at creating the perception of change in schools, rather than change itself. Knowing that they are not held routinely held accountable the way public schools are, it is no wonder why they consistently look better.

Performance is only part of my concern thought.

There is a reason why foundations are not pouring money into private schools and sending students there by droves. Charters are systematically, routinely designed to siphon money from the public school system by diverting public support and target it towards private interests. The lesson charter school advocates, including foundations, politicians, and lobbyists are promoting is that having public accountability is a failure, and private innovation is the only way to go.

Anyone who cares about democracy and social justice needs to see the truth of charters: They are trojan horses for destroying democratic society. There’s a reason why the U.S. was the first nation in the world to consider them seriously, and why only deeply capitalist countries are adopting them.

Charter schools are baaaaad news.

I agree that there is always more room, but I do not agree that charter schools have absolutely anything to do with it. Charter schools are a false choice forced on Americans as “The Only Choice”, insofar as they represent an extreme departure from the democratic nature of public schools and an isolatory uplifting of capitalism as an ideal.

The Solution

There are great strides that can be taken to reinvent public schools.

  • Actively engage all students as partners throughout the public education system in order to foster authentic, meaningful school reform. Dismantle that old system created for the industrialists of the 19 century. 
  • Redesign all learning for the 21st century. 
  • Dismantle the meritocracy that hires only teachers from schools that teach the old methods. 
  • Empower parents and communities to provide elders and teachers from life experience, new science, oral historians, and those who will share whole, uncensored versions of history. 
  • Allow all children to regain their natural curiosity and recover from oppressive, authoritarian institutions. 
  • Allow teachers to be creative and help design public schools with parent advisory board approval.

I adapted this list from a friend who suggested all these things can only happen through charters. I’m disinterested in any so-called “innovation” that ultimately detracts from the public nature of public schools, particularly along the lines of private and charter schools. In my experience of working with public schools over the last decade to foster innovative policy and practice, private and charter schools have proven to be ineffective models to hold against the realities public schools face.

We need a concerted effort to refocus our public schools along those lines by inserting public will into public schools. The same public will can eviscerate the influence of corporations on the machinations of public education, particularly on the political and administrative sides. Politicians and public education administrators have succeeded in veiling the high level functions of public schools from the public, and we need to pull back that veil to understand what’s happening there- instead of abandoning it, and the individual classrooms that echo what goes on in the upper echelons. That will take a radical approach to democratic ownership and the wholesale engagement of parents and communities, and that is what many charter school advocates are calling for. Public education is capable of providing this, so long as we, including residents and citizens and parents and voters and children and youth, stand for it and tell politicians that the public controls public schools, not corporations or private influence. 


We need a thrust of public-driven innovation in public education, not the further privatization of public institutions of private benefit. That’s exactly what charters are, and what they do: benefit few at the expense of many. We need to reinvigorate the role of public education. We need public democracy schools that use democracy to educate about democracy, and not otherwise, which is what a lot of so-called democratic schools do.

A public education promotion campaign should be designed to counter the poor perception the public has about public schools. They have been smeared by mainstream media, politicians, and corporations for decades. They have also been called out repeatedly by parents and students who had horrendous experiences in public schools, and public schools have not responded. It is time to reclaim the positive powerful potential of public schools. It is not merely a “PR campaign” that is needed, either. Labeling truth-telling about public schools as “PR” is fighting cynicism with cynicism. We need a campaign to educate everyone about the fragile balance our democratic society walks, and the essential role public schools play in maintaining that balance.

The solution is not to abandon public schools en masse. It is easy to hear the loud, upset, concerned, and disenfranchised voters wagging their fingers at teachers, shaking their fists at principals, and bawling out their students when they do not get good grades. I do see students continue to leave schools in growing numbers, pushed out for economic, racial, and cultural reasons that should be addressed. I do see middle-class, white, suburban parents taking their children out of public schools more frequently. These situations are not the problems. The problem bears repeating:

Charters are trojan horses for destroying democratic society. 

And nothing less. We need to stop them, now.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

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