By Name Withheld for job-security reasons
First, a note: Are charter schools public schools? I describe them as private schools run with public money. The charter sector will insist that they’re public schools when it suits them and insist that they’re not public schools when it suits them. The common term for non-charter public schools is “traditional public schools” (TPSs). I’m just referring to TPSs as public schools.
Starting with the problems with charter schools: Charter schools drain resources from public schools. Any time a student goes to a charter instead of a public school, that means the public school loses that much funding, but its costs don’t go down. That hurts public schools and the kids in them.
This point is sort of the big kahuna: Charter schools are free to impose any admissions hurdles they want, or to actively pick and choose students, and to push out students. Many uninformed people will claim they’re not allowed to, but there’s no oversight whatsoever of their admissions processes, and the charter sector has been amply protected by political and media Teflon, so anyone who DID try to police their admissions process would be screwed. This results, of course, in charters serving fewer students with disabilities (and when they do, certainly only students with more mild disabilities) and fewer English-language learners. Also, charters may serve low-income students, but they’ll be low-income students who made it through the selection process – essentially screened for being more compliant and motivated students with compliant, motivated and supportive families. Only recently has this issue been raised by the media (and Hillary Clinton mentioned it). This also hurts public schools and the kids in them.
- Parents and possibly teachers in charter schools are well aware of this and often think it’s supposed to be the design of the school. If they’re not clued in that the selectivity is supposed to be hush-hush, parents in charter schools will happily describe that as a main benefit of the school. Now, it CAN be viewed as a genuine benefit, especially for challenged kids who might do much better in a setting free of more-troubled kids. But it’s known as the lifeboat concept – the people in the lifeboat survive and let the others drown.
- Charter defenders will often respond that public schools are free to push out kids too. But that’s not a valid argument, because if a public school kicks out a student, the school district still has to deal with the student one way or another – find him/her a school, a continuation school etc. When a charter school kicks out a student, it never has to deal with the student and family in any way again.
The freedom from regulation, lack of oversight and political protection charters enjoy mean they’re fertile ground for looters, swindlers and thieves, and the history of charter schools amply demonstrates that. There’s a very long list of scandals involving this stuff in charter schools all over the country. Charter defenders will retort that looting, swindling and theft go on in public schools too, and of course that’s true, but charter schools make it that much easier, and crooks are aggressively taking advantage of that all the time in the charter sector.
Charters’ freedom from regulation, lack of oversight and political protection also make it easy to create and operate a very shaky charter operation, even for people who don’t intend to steal and have genuine good intentions. So charter schools collapse frequently. This disrupts the lives of the kids in those charter schools and the districts that have to deal with the fallout. Even if they don’t collapse – or until they do – a shaky school operation is obviously problematic.
If a would-be charter operator applies to a school board, the law means the board is very limited in its ability to reject the application. Even if the board does, the applicant can then go to the county Board of Education and then to the state Board of Education. The county and state have much less concern about the impact on a district and its students than the local school board, so they’re much more likely to approve the charter. This means local school boards have little control over how many schools are in their district, what kind of schools are in their district and what those schools are doing. All that is a management nightmare, guaranteed to disrupt districts and harm the children in the district. The counterargument is that districts are so messed up that this doesn’t matter – that public schools are such a mess that we must try anything, no matter how obviously unsound, to fix them. For one thing, this isn’t true of most public schools (most parents in most schools would fight efforts to rip the school apart), and for another, think of applying that notion to a child with a hard-to-treat illness, for example – let’s just try something, anything, and see what happens!
It’s practically impossible and a bloody legal and media nightmare for a district to close even a totally disastrous charter if the charter sector wants to fight back. That’s because of the political and media protection charters enjoy and the enormous resources of the charter sector, backed by billionaires.
Co-locations, where a charter is forced into an existing school, are horribly destructive and disruptive. They rip apart school communities, create ugly conflict in school districts, and drain resources from the kids in the existing school, harming them badly. Yet the law means that school boards often have no choice but to allow these co-locations.
Parents may feel they don’t have input into public schools, but they’re still run based on a democratic system – elected school boards and a legal requirement for a School Site Council at every school, plus many schools have PTAs or other parent groups. At charter schools, parents may get absolutely zero input. No democratically elected school board oversees them and a charter is free to ban parent groups entirely.
Here are some things that in my opinion aren’t effective ways for critics to discuss charter schools. I really, really apologize for any toes I step on here. A couple of points: There are many different kinds of charters, so it’s not valid or effective to generalize about the model of schools. Many people will say all charters are small, all charters are rigid “no excuses” models or all charters are designed to serve certain kinds of kids. None of those things are true. Also, it’s DEFINITELY not true that all charters are academically high achieving.
Claims that charter schools are all about making profits are really not effective. There are for-profit charters and there’s a complicated history there, but that isn’t really the big issue. Also, claims that for-profit charters are the problem and nonprofit charters are OK are also not effective or valid — there are awful and destructive charters that are nonprofits, legally speaking. Also, the billionaires pouring money into the charter sector are not really likely to be trying to make money from it. It’s more complicated than that. I don’t think it’s useful to raise that issue at all, especially because inaccuracies weaken the argument.
In my opinion, criticizing charter teachers or bringing up unionization at all is not an effective argument. I will say that every teacher I know who teaches or has taught at a charter wanted to be in a public school and settled for the charter – and that’s despite the fact that challenging kids are screened out of charters and not public schools. I don’t necessarily know why, but that’s my observation.
Some people think a specialty school with a theme has to be a charter school. No! My kids’ public arts high school in San Francisco (now they’re alumni) is NOT a charter school. Here in San Francisco, we have many language immersion schools (as do other districts) that aren’t charters, and quite a few K-8s that aren’t charters. That’s just to avoid confusion.
Also, charter schools are constantly used as a political weapon against public schools in myriad ways.