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.

What’s good for children—how they learn and build relationships and using culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogies—have gone out the window. (More on this in the next article.)

We are in a downward spiral, with a growing two-tiered system of education. Charter schools are better funded, get first choice on space and have more services. Yet there are significantly fewer special needs students and English language learners. Well-funded advertising campaigns make charter schools an apparent attractive choice for parents over the traditional neighborhood public school, although overall studies often show the opposite. (More on this in another article.) Parents compete with each other for seats in the presumed higher quality charter schools through a lottery. Some win and some lose, and the losers are relegated to a neighborhood public school that is increasingly underfunded, with class size much too large, the teaching and support staff grossly inadequate, resources too few and physical conditions deplorable.

Today, parents are isolated individuals, on their own to figure out what’s best for their children. They are pitted against other parents in a “divide and conquer strategy” orchestrated from above, forcing them to compete for charter school slots. It is understandable that parents whose children are not chosen would feel frustrated, cheated and angry, while families whose children do get accepted can be elated. This is not a formula to encourage parents to join together to work for better public schools.

What’s gone is the notion of the neighborhood school as a community center where people feel welcome and come together for support and struggle—to have fun, to learn and to band together politically. How can our communities come together to fight for our common interests—high quality and equitable schooling being one of the most important? The charter school movement causes competition and divisiveness among parents and families. It works against cooperation and democratic efforts to improve education. It sets up individual parents struggling alone against the system. It is a fundamental violation of our human rights—both to high-quality education and to rich democratic participation in decisions affecting our lives. (For more on thinking about high-quality education as a fundamental human right and a using a human rights framework to address educational questions, visit www.icope.org.)

The Coalition for Public Education in New York City, using a human rights framework, is committed to a socially just, holistic and high-quality education for us all. CPE draws on past experience to times when parents and communities have been deeply engaged and active in democratic struggles for equity and high- quality schools to guide its work. This group seeks to bring communities together to struggle for a well-funded, well-staffed, culturally rich and high-quality education for all our children through a democratically organized public system of education. (There will be more on how we can move forward and historical precedents for this work in the next article.) You can look up the Coalition for Public Education at www.cpe.org. We invite you to join in this important struggle.