The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On Education Part Ten: Should We Embrace the Charter School Movement?

This mini-series "On Education" is a compiled list of short essays concerning theoretical approaches to classroom pedagogy and their broader implications upon us as educators and our students.

Read Past Contributions:
Part Eight: Middle Class Elitism and the Myth of the Super Teacher
Part Nine: Class and the Possibility to Transcend Race, Nationality, and Ethnic Identity 


The essence of any private entity, insofar as it exists within a capitalist political economy, is to function around a profit motive. Public institutions, on the other hand, despite their often deteriorated democratic structures and top-heavy bureaucratic management, provide some semblance of public ownership and popular control. American capitalism, especially in the age of globalization, has pursued drastic privatization efforts in nearly every area imaginable. Thus, very few industries or economic sectors remain within the public domain. The education of children remains a final frontier in privatization, in the domination of the market over democratic control and public ownership. According to some corporate analysts, “the education industry represents the largest market opportunity since health-care services were privatized during the 1970’s,” (Kozol) and corporate America plans to impinge upon this sector, slyly or with force. Charter schools are the manifestation of this privatization effort within the educational realm; they function to subvert the public school system, allowing corporate America to latch its lengthy tentacles onto the levers of power in order to manipulate and control young peoples’ educational experience while garnering a profit.

Charters are, essentially, “any school that is funded publicly but governed by institutions outside the public school system” which allows for “any group of people [a company, a non-governmental organization, a university, etc.] who write a charter can become autonomous from a public school board and control the budget, curriculum, and select the students in a school” (Knopp, p.36). Essentially, this means that anybody or any company, regardless of their knowledge or educational background, can dictate the educational environment in which children are taught. Charter schools, until recently a relatively marginal form of education, have sprung up rapidly in the both United States and around the world:

Today more than one million children attend some four thousand charter schools nationally.10 The Chicago Teachers Union has shrunk by 10 percent since the onset of Renaissance 2010, a program to break away one hundred schools from the Chicago Public School District. In Los Angeles 7 percent of children in public school, 45,000 students, attend charter schools.11 And that number is growing rapidly: in California, charter schools grew by 13.2 percent in 2006/07, increasing to 617 schools.12 Joel Klein, chancellor of schools in the New York public school system, has announced his intention that all of New York’s schools should be charters.13 Thirty percent of the students in Dayton, Ohio, attend charter schools.14 About 30 percent of the children in Washington, D.C., attend these schools, and 9 percent in Arizona. Georgia has sixty charter schools, double what it had in 2005. Florida has 334, and Texas 237.15  (Knopp, p. 38).

Often funded by right-wing foundations and endowments, such as the annual $50 million provided by Wal-Mart’s Walton Family Foundation (Klonsky and Klonsky, p.93), even many prominent liberals, such as President Barack Obama, vigorously promote the charter school agenda. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a 2006 study which postulated that called for replacing public schools with charter schools, “eliminating nearly all the powers of local school boards” and replacing their powers with a rubber-stamp ability to approve charters, “eliminating teacher pensions and slashing health benefits,” and “forcing all 10th graders to take a high school exit examination based on 12th grade skills, and terminating the education of those who failed” (Miller and Gerson). The charter movement merges seamlessly with the dominant, neoliberal ideological tendencies of the past three decades:

Charter schools fit the needs of the establishment perfectly. Education is still compulsory and paid for by the state. Children are still controlled while their parents are at work, and thus this is still supported by our regressive tax structure. And charter schools are excellent teachers of free-market, “personal responsibility” ideology. The American Dream is promised to all those who strive to pull themselves up by the bootstraps (Knopp, p.39).
Charter schools, then, work within the long-established framework of undemocratic and alienating social efficiency theory of education. With this advent, the possibility of a Wal-Mart educated America may become a reality in the not so distance future.

The impacts of charter schools on the public education system are diverse and multifaceted. Undoubtedly, public education within the United States has historically suffered from a lack of funding, an unequal distribution of resources, a lack of democratic control by the community, sluggish bureaucracy, and top-down decision making. Some within the educational establishment, even well-intentioned teachers and parents attracted to rhetoric of choice and innovation, argue that charters can reinvigorate the local school environment and empower historically marginalized communities. Some progressive journals such as Rethinking Schools have already shown they are open to the idea that charters may present a benevolent development over the decrepit public system. In the book published by Rethinking Schools, Keeping the Promise? The Debate Over Charter Schools, authors explain that the “question facing the charter school movement is whether it will fulfill its founding promise of reform that empowers the powerless, or whether it will become a vehicle to further enrich the powerful and stratify our schools” (Dingerson et al., xv). This idealistic vision, however, has already been answered. 

Eventually, even smaller charters formed on the basis of providing a progressive, engaging educational environment, such charters organized around principles of social justice, are eventually pried open by corporate money as they struggle to garner more resources for their children. Kozol explains:

In rare occasions, a charter school created by teachers in the public system and in collaboration with activist parents in the community have had at least short-term success… [but] They tend very quickly—even when they’re started by teachers with the best intentions—to enter into collaboration with the private sector (Kozol).

Thus, charter schools represent an individual, reactionary solution to a prodigious societal problem; they do very little of what they promise and, furthermore, they effectively close the dialogue on articulating organized, collective solutions which could drastically improve the public educational system for all children. Charter schools present a myriad of problems for educators who wish to democratize schooling and provide fair, equitable educational institutions for all students. No only do they brazenly swing open the door to mass privatization, charters fail to perform better than other schools, choose the students able to attend which decreases student and parent control and excludes undesirable children, provide even less autonomy than public schools, and they serve as a virulent offensive against teachers unions.

The profit motive, which drives the business world, has increasingly manifested itself as the impetus behind school reform. Charter schools can be either non-profit or for-profit institutions. Currently, around one-quarter of all charter schools function for a profit. However, even non-profit schools face the constant need to expand, secure more funds, and provide the cheapest services possible which ensure the greatest return. Thus, while for-profits are less pervasive, the effects of running charter schools on the business model (since non-profits rely upon cost-cutting as well in order to expand) are applicable to both categories. Knopp explains, “there is always an incentive to do things on the cheap—poorly maintained physical plant and equipment, low pay for teachers and other staff, and larger class sizes mean bigger rates of return” (Knopp, p. 40-1). Even if a charter declares itself non-profit, administration salaries can be extremely high and charters are capable of siphoning off some public funds to keep as profit. This, however, does not even include the common practice of “contracting out” non-profit charters. Often, “for-profit corporations create nonprofit foundations to obtain the charters, and then hire themselves to run the schools” (Klonsky and Klonsky, p. 108). Thus, within the realm of private education corruption abounds and profiteering reigns. As is common within a capitalist framework, sly executives regularly maneuver around the limited laws which attempt to limit the denigrating effects of the market on the public sphere.

Another common claim is that charters will outperform the public sector in terms of testing and student achievement. Ignoring the fact that charters are still tied to the rigid state curriculum and fundamentally flawed and biased standardized testing, these schools generally fail to meet the claim of providing a superior educational experience. A variety of studies have concluded charter schools either perform at the same level of public institutions or, in many cases, do worse. Math and reading scores, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, were generally lower in independent charter schools than their counterparts in the public realm (“Exploding the Charter School Myth”) Similarly, a 2005 study carried out by the Economic Policy Institute and the Teachers’ College at Columbia University entitled Charter School Dustup: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement, found that “socio-economically disadvantages Asian-origin and Latino students in charter schools had composite test scores (literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies) that were about 4 to 5 percent lower than their counterparts in public primary schools” (Conroy et al.). Knopp explains that “every state besides Arizona…found charter schools’ performance is no higher than that of public schools in every demographic category” (Knopp, p. 41). Like many other charter school assertions, the declaration of better grades does not match up with the hard statistics. This is not to say that charters cannot succeed, they can; however, it is usually when they are provided with extra money and more resources than public schools.

Even when charters can accurately maintain that they have better test scores, it is because they have the choice to cherry-pick what students they allow in the institution; thus, charters start with students who already have scored higher on standardized tests. The boards who run these schools “select for students with the most resourceful parents, the children who already have a head start in the race” (Knopp, p.42). Likewise, English language learners are often ostracized from these institutions since charters, “whether consciously or unconsciously, select for those students who are going to boost their test scores the most” (Knopp, p. 42). Many schools even “decry the ‘burdens’ of special education” and “frequently pronounce themselves not subject to IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act]” and do whatever they can to reject children with special needs (Stoneman). Lastly, charters can simply remove students, or parents, whom they dislike or struggle in the school. Parents and students lack the due process potentially available to them in the public school system.

Some charters utilize rhetoric of autonomy, grassroots control, and social justice to draw students traditionally marginalized by the public system. However, this fa├žade of academic freedom does not truly exist since charters, like public schools, cannot evade the rigid standardization measurements put forth by the dominant testing agencies and state bureaucrats. In the same vein, charters remove parent and teacher control absolutely, as is clear in the case of Green Dot, the nonprofit organization that runs a dozen or so charters in Los Angeles, which explicitly exclaims “the Board maintains final authority over decisions regarding administrative decisions” (Knopp, p.42). Decisions over curriculum, clothing (such as uniforms), educational tactics, and methods of assessment all lie with the board who governs the schools, quite the opposite of the language of grassroots autonomy charters often evoke. Most charters even go so far as to not permit unions within their establishments. Leadership Academy in Los Angeles, which calls itself a social justice school, illuminates this concept lucidly:

[The Leadership Academy] encourages teachers to use lessons from movements for social change, and encourages students to attend antiwar demonstrations. The school recruits students who have been involved in community organizing and who are committed to progressive, antiracist pedagogy. The teachers learned a lesson in social justice, though, when they tried to win the right to representation and collective bargaining by affiliating to the California Teachers Association. Roger Lowenstein [the head of the academy] hired high-paid anti-union law firms to keep the union out… Lowenstein argued to the Public Employee Relations Board that it should have no role in overseeing the union election or investigating unfair labor practices because the Leadership Academy is “not a public school.” If he was referring to the decision-making process—rather than the source of funding, which is, of course, public—he is absolutely right. Teachers quickly found out that the school’s advocacy for struggle, protest, and collectively “speaking truth to power” rang hollow when it came to their right to organize themselves (Knopp, p. 43).

Thus, charters not only dictate the terms upon which children are educated, they present a direct attack upon teachers’ unions and the right to workplace organization. Within the larger, neoliberal context of the past three decades, this theme fits in rather flawlessly.

Charter schools do not represent a real solution to America’s endemic schooling predicament. Charters present a reactionary response to a failing educational system; they are tools of the rich who utilize them “used to dismantle the power of the teachers’ unions” while “siphoning public money into private hands” by “channeling tax money into the pockets of enterprising individuals” (Knopp, p.39). Despite the harmful effects of charters, they continue to creep into the public realm. In California, where tens of thousands of students attend overcrowded school buildings, legislation has been articulated that allows for charters to take over public space. In Chicago, Arnie Duncan has vehemently promoted charter schools, along with merit pay and massive militarization of the public school system, and closed many public schools and replaced them with private or military institutions (Ayers, “Child Soldiers” and Sharkey, “Military Out of Our Schools”). However, parents, teachers, students, and community members have actively fought back in various instances and, in same cases, won decisive victories of the charter schools. In California, after large-scale community protests, only sixteen of forty applications for co-location of charters in public space were accepted by the Los Angeles United School District (Knopp, p. 45). Similarly, in Puerto Rico teachers “struck for more than a week against the colonial government’s plans for education” which included the increased presence of charter schools on the island (Knopp, p.44). Therefore, it is apparent that a dedicated, organized campaign of education and activism is absolutely necessary to challenge the charter school movement. As recent victories show, collective effort can overpower corporate encroachment.

Teachers who truly desire autonomy, equality, and social justice must articulate a different platform for educational reform. First, they most argue that if the public school system was better funded, had more access to needed resources, was given more democratic control with curriculum, and not confined by culturally biased standardized tests which smother teacher creativity and stifle students ability to critically analyze and be engaged in school, then charter schools would not have any significant place in the discussion over reform. This abstraction, however, must be backed up with concrete action at the grassroots level.

Educators must involve themselves deeply within the struggle for more resources; an increase on corporate tax rates or a deflating of the military budget could provide the money so desperately needed to help fix the public system. An intense educational campaign must be waged against charters; this means teachers must be actively involved in their own unions and win over other educators to the idea. Educators should also welcome charter school teachers into teachers’ unions, but on the condition that they have all the fundamental rights of non-charter contracts. Lastly, teachers must fight every corporate incursion and charter friendly legislation that appears before them; “from the $3 billion testing industry accelerated under No Child Left Behind, to McGraw-Hill and its Reading First program pushed through by the Bush Administration,” every act corporate and military impingement in the public sphere must be challenged (Knopp, p.45-6). Without organized resistance, the America’s education will just be another example of the long line of privatization, from healthcare, to the prison industry, to the military. It is the place of educators, who honestly care for the quality of education provided to all students, to fight back against the newest wave of privatization and corporate infringement on the public domain.

Conroy, M., Jacobsen, R., Mishel, L., and Rothstein, R., The Charter School Dustup: Examining Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement (Washington: Economic Policy Institute, 2005).
Editorial, (August 27, 2006). Retrieved April 19, 2009 from New York Times:
Klonsky, M., and Klonsky, S., Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society (New York: Routledge, 2008).
Knopp, S., (Nov-Dec 2008). “Charter Schools and the Attack on Public Education.” International Socialist Review 62, pg. 36-47. Also available from International Socialist Review Online:
Kozol, J., (August 2007). “The Big Enchilada.” Retried April 19, 2009 from Harper’s Magazine
Kozol, J., (Jan-Feb 2006). “Separate and Unequal: America’s Apartheid Schools.” Interview in International Socialist Review 45. Retrieved April 19, 2009 from International Socialist Review Online:
Miller, S., and Gerson, J., “The Corporate Surge Against Public Schools.” Retrieved April 19, 2009 from Scribd:
Quinn, T., Meiners, E., Ayers, B., (January 8, 2008). “Child Soldiers.” Retrived April 19, 2009 from Bill Ayers:
Sharkey, J., (October 14, 2008). “Get the Military Out of Our Schools.” Retrieved April 19, 2009 from Socialist Worker:
Stoneman, C. (Fall 1988). “New Battlegrounds.” Retrieved April 19, 2009, from Rethinking Schools: 

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