How the charter school movement threatens public education, disempowers parents and what we can do about it

The Independent Commission on Public Education | 9/11/2014, 4:25 p.m.
Young people are supposed to love going to school—a place where educators who understand and support them nurture their full ...

Young people are supposed to love going to school—a place where educators who understand and support them nurture their full human development into caring, competent and responsible adults. Initially, charter schools were supposed to try out new ways to improve on this rich educational promise for every child. They were to be in partnership with public schools, and whatever was learned in these experimental havens was to be brought back to improve the larger whole.

However, that’s not what’s happened. Today, the charter school movement is a powerful force disrupting, weakening and potentially destroying our public school system. How did a reasonable approach to flexibility and innovation turn into cutthroat competition and enmity between what has come to be a corporate-dominated and -controlled charter school movement with substantial private money and an underfunded, under-resourced and increasingly stigmatized public education system? And why is corporate power hell-bent on controlling the charter school movement?

In a series of articles, we will discuss why this is happening, how charter schools serve to weaken our schools and what those of us committed to a democratically driven and well-rounded education for all can do about it. This discussion is especially salient for those of us yet to choose an education path for our children. We shall also discuss the importance of parent and community voices in determining educational policy and how charter schools serve to divide our communities and parent groups, such that we are all weakened and may lose the chance for quality education.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the New York City school system in 2002, he used the flexibility available to charter schools to initiate changes in how schools would be run. One very consequential “innovation” was to turn schools into mini businesses, with the principal as the all powerful decision maker at the top, teachers as hired help with little voice and parents as customers with no voice. Parents would choose a school for their children much in the way we choose which shoes to buy. The only recourse for parents who didn’t like a school was to remove their children and “choose” another. Test scores were thought of as “profits,” and competition among schools was fostered with standardized high stakes test scores, which, like profits, were a key measure of success or failure.

Enter a major increase in corporate influence. The stage was set for corporate monies to be poured into charter schools to make them the preferred choice, with their test prep curriculum, attractive classroom settings, well-funded public relations campaigns and few regulations. For example, charter school budgets can be kept secret from the public, teachers usually have no union and can be fired at will with no due process and parents have to “love it or leave it.” Corporate domination means there is big-time corporate lobbying with our politicians for centralized curriculum, i.e., the Common Core, with text books, test prep materials, lots of tests corrected by machines and bigger profits for education companies than ever before.