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The problem with charter schools

July 29, 2014

Today I read this article written by Allie Gross (hat tip Suresh Naidu), a former Teach for America teacher whose former idealism has long been replaced by her experiences in the reality of education in this country. Her article is entitled The Charter School Profiteers.

It’s really important, and really well written, and just one of the articles in the online magazine Jacobin that I urge you to read and to subscribe to. In fact that article is part of a series (here’s another which focuses on charter schools in New Orleans) and it comes with a booklet called Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook. I just ordered a couple of hard copies.

I’d really like you to read the article, but as a teaser here’s one excerpt, a rant which she completely backs up with facts on the ground:

You haven’t heard of Odeo, the failed podcast company the Twitter founders initially worked on? Probably not a big deal. You haven’t heard about the failed education ventures of the person now running your district? Probably a bigger deal.

When we welcome schools that lack democratic accountability (charter school boards are appointed, not elected), when we allow public dollars to be used by those with a bottom line (such as the for-profit management companies that proliferate in Michigan), we open doors for opportunism and corruption. Even worse, it’s all justified under a banner of concern for poor public school students’ well-being.

While these issues of corruption and mismanagement existed before, we should be wary of any education reformer who claims that creating an education marketplace is the key to fixing the ills of DPS or any large city’s struggling schools. Letting parents pick from a variety of schools does not weed out corruption. And the lax laws and lack of accountability can actually exacerbate the socioeconomic ills we’re trying to root out.

  1. Savonarola
    July 29, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Love Jacobin. I’ll have to go take a look at the full article. But it’s been clear to me for a long time that they are looking to cash in on a revenue stream and completely usurp all public good into the private sphere. Education is NOT a market.

    Whenever they say that they have concern for poor public anything, put a hand on your wallet.


    • August 5, 2014 at 10:46 pm

      I’ll move beyond it to the substance soon, but I’m initially stuck on the name “Jacobin.” Isn’t the connotation the Reign of Terror?


  2. July 29, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Diane Ravitch’s blog and her book Reign of Error are very informative on this subject.


  3. July 29, 2014 at 8:40 am

    Especially troubling is how well the charter school sector is plays both sides of the public / private card. They are “public” schools when they demand taxpayer money and rent-free space to operate, but they are “private” entities when the government wants to audit their finances or their practices.

    There are well-intentioned people working in the charter school sector. But the rapid, unchecked growth of this industry should concern everyone, not just those with direct interests in education.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Darren
    July 29, 2014 at 9:08 am

    It seems important to me to draw a distinction between For-Profit charter schools and those run by the local community. We chose to send my son to a charter school in our community because it is more progressive and forward-thinking about education (Dual immersion language, for starters, while the public school doesn’t have any foreign language instruction until 9th grade, and then only in the gifted program) and in keeping with our family values than the local public school. Maybe this isn’t as much a problem in big cities, but in small towns like mine there is a huge benefit to having options of schools.


    • July 29, 2014 at 9:15 am

      I don’t think all charter schools are bad. It’s good to have experiments, although it should always be remembered that things that work on individual bases with passionate founders and parents probably won’t scale.

      Putting aside statistical concerns though, the current charter school movement involves way too many people talking about business plans and making lots of money, instead of people who are focused on education.

      On Tue, Jul 29, 2014 at 9:08 AM, mathbabe wrote:



    • July 29, 2014 at 9:58 am

      “For-Profit” is not the proper distinction. I believe all of NYC’s charter schools are technically operated by non-profits, but many charter school execs earn more than the head of NYC’s public school system (see here), financial backers get huge incentives to fund charters (see here), and lots of money gets spread around in unscrutinized contracts.. There are lots of profits to be made in non-profits..


  5. Larry Headlund
    July 29, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Teach for America, based on the notion that all you need to know about how to be a teacher you can learn in a few weeks, Well, all you need to know to teach those disadvantaged kids anyway. Of course, a graduate of a journalism school (http://www.educationdive.com/editors/allison/) couldn’t be expected to know how to investigate an organization before she joined it. She was able to teach the students to chant anyway(https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=5&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CDgQFjAE&url=https%3A%2F%2Falliedmedia.org%2Fnews-tags%2Fallie-gross&ei=Q6rXU6mKG4uxyASIhIDIAg&usg=AFQjCNEHzq6WhdZkLErQ93JqqWxarH0iXw&sig2=PAsgMzTOIKdqifQ7hzukvw&bvm=bv.71778758,d.aWw).
    I’m sure her idealism blinded her to how Teach for America is used as a resume polisher before Wall Street or Law School.. Luckily, it all worked out. She is back in her original field, journalism, but now as an education expert.


  6. July 29, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    Reblogged this on The Art of Teaching Science and commented:
    An important article on charter schools.


  7. eballen
    July 29, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Maybe this is a question for Aunt Pythia:
    I’m a New Yorker living in NC (backwards on education and currently trying hard to move backwards in many other areas – but my Durham, NC is a bubble of awesomeness despite its statehood). I have two young sons, 6 and 2. At least one of them (the older one, younger trending but too young to tell) is smart, engaged, independent, and has a grand sense of personal dignity that is not scaled for age. He has thrived at the private Montessori school that is conveniently a short walk through the woods in our backyard. He gets lots of physical activity, lots of intelligent guidance from teachers who are treated like professionals, and lots of autonomy to immerse himself in his passion of the moment. I always expected to send my kids to public schools, but we couldn’t stand to pull him from a place he did so well as a preschooler, especially given the disturbing trends of the public schools lately. Should I feel guilty for using my data scientist/engineer household income to get my kids the kind of educational experience I wish all kids could have instead of engaging the public school system? This article at least makes me feel better about going private instead of charter (NC is trying to expand charters). But somehow I feel like a bad citizen for not going with public schools for my kids – though of course I do with my taxes.
    – Grappling with Undue Internal Loathing Tendencies


    • July 29, 2014 at 10:04 pm

      I’m not Aunt Pythia, and do not play her on the Internet, but as someone who made brief excursions through private and parochial schools in addition to my chiefly public school education I don’t recall there ever being much objection to parents who used their private funds to pay for private and religious schooling if that is what they thought best.

      That does not alter the fact that everyone receives the benefits of a generally educated and diversely skilled society, so it behooves everyone to support that common resource in due proportion.

      So the problem arises only when some people use the opportunities afforded them under the social compact to destroy the opportunities owed to others under the same social compact. And that is what is happening today.


    • Min
      July 30, 2014 at 10:13 am

      You can send your kids to alternative schools and still engage the public school system. You don’t even need kids to do that.


  8. July 30, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Corruption exists wherever there is money. $40-$50 million spent to upgrade Walton High School in the Bronx (now no longer functioning as Walton) will never be found.

    And charters in Harlem seem to be doing much better jobs at educating children than the local public schools.

    As for salaries, I always wondered why it was such a secret what the heads of teachers’ unions were making until I saw the numbers. If you want stupendous numbers look at the salaries of the heads of “not-for-profit” colleges and universities.


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