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The Charter School Challenge


Do charter schools pose an existential threat to public education and teacher unions? One need look no further than post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, widely touted as a national model of education reform, to understand why many observers now answer this question in the affirmative. Today, New Orleans charter schools enroll more than nine in every ten public school students, a share that continues to grow as traditional public schools are closed and new charters are opened. With the growth of non-union charter schools, the post-Katrina teaching force has become significantly younger and whiter, supplanting the predominantly African-American and unionized teaching cohort that was illegally dismissed en masse in the wake of the hurricane. Despite this sweeping change, there is scant evidence that the academic performance of New Orleans schools has meaningfully improved in the nine years since Katrina. But that did not stop U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, an outspoken advocate of charter schools, from declaring that “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”

The Political Challenge of Charter Schools

Post-Katrina New Orleans is the vanguard of a larger charter school movement. Today, forty- three states and the District of Columbia have laws authorizing charter schools. There are over 7,000 charter schools across the country, accounting for more than 7 percent of all American public schools. But these aggregate numbers tell only half of the story. Charter schools are heavily concentrated in urban centers and now constitute a significant portion of the schools in cities from Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Houston, and Oakland. A majority of Detroit’s students attend charter schools. In absolute numbers, Los Angeles has over 120,000 charter school students, the most in the nation; New York City is second, with 60,000-plus charter school students. In both cities, charter schools have been deliberately concentrated in communities of color and in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, part of an effort to take advantage of the inequities of race and class that afflict American public education.

Since 2008, charter schools have more than doubled in number, while 4,000 district public schools have closed.

Since 2008, charter schools have more than doubled in number, while 4,000 district public schools across the country have closed. During this time, the leadership of the charter school movement, the leading charter management organizations (CMOs), and most charter schools have adopted an antagonistic posture toward district public schools and teacher unions. They view themselves as engaged in a zero-sum competition, in which charter school development, growth, and health can only come at the expense of district public schools and teacher unions. Charter school leaders have been outspoken critics of the work of district public schools and the biggest supporters of mayors and school superintendents who have pursued policies of mass public school closures in inner-city communities. Less than 9 percent of the nation’s charter schools are represented by unions and have collective bargaining agreements; as a general rule, charter management has fought unionization tooth and nail.

The charter movement leadership has championed schools modeled after for-profit businesses and corporations, and serving as a market alternative to district public schools. Support for this conception came from two different political quarters, Republican conservatives that dominate the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party that initiated Democrats for Education Reform. While they disagree on a number of political issues, both of these forces share a common allegiance to corporate power and a common antipathy for organized labor, especially teacher unions. As the last outpost of the American labor movement that has effectively organized its economic sector, teacher unions provide crucial electoral support to progressive candidates for public office and vital political power for a progressive legislative agenda. Republican conservatives confronting increasingly unfavorable demographic trends see voter suppression and union suppression— especially of teacher unions—as vital to maintaining their electoral competitiveness. Similarly, the Wall Street Democrats for Education Reform see teacher unions as the main political foes of pro-corporate Democrats such as Michael Bennett and Cory Booker who are the stalwarts of their agenda.

The Intellectual Challenge of Charter Schools

While public education advocates and teacher unionists focus on the political dangers posed by the charter school movement, the intellectual understanding of that movement lags far behind what is needed. Much of the current discourse is in the thrall of a crude and one-dimensional analysis that renders charter schools as private schools, pure and simple, solely because they are governed and managed by independent boards and not by a school district. It is their “private”

governance and management structure, this line of argument goes, that makes charter schools antagonistic to district public schools and teacher unions. But the minority of charter schools that seriously engage with promising experiments in curricula and teaching, and have a positive relationship with district public schools and teacher unions, demonstrate the fallacious reasoning of this thinking. Insofar as most charter schools have adopted this antagonistic posture, the source of the problem lies not in the structure of their governance and management, but in the specific policies and practices advocated by the leader- ship of the charter school movement and adopted by those who manage the great preponderance of charter schools.

To address the intellectual challenge posed by charter schools, we need a deeper and more complete understanding of what it means for schools to be public. American society needs a robust system of public education because education is, in its essential aspects, a public good: it is the means that we as a people use to fulfill certain common objectives that are fundamental to our aspirations of democratic self-rule. Among those objectives are the socialization and enculturation of youth; the development of the skills and dispositions of democratic citizenship, from critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and problem solving to historical understanding and civic participation; the nurturing of the self-reflection and self-direction that allows the citizenry to construct productive lives of meaning and purpose; the promotion of economic opportunity and the reduction of economic inequality; and the preparation of a workforce for the global knowledge economy. Taken as a whole, these ends are the necessary foundation of a productive economy and democratic polity in a free society.

Education can also provide private goods such as marketable job skills and inculcation into the values and customs of a particular faith community. While individuals and groups may pursue these private goods, and may even establish private schools to secure them, they are not a compelling reason for public support of education. Education as a private good can be readily bought and sold in a marketplace, as it has utility for individuals, but education as a public good is of a different order. It is part of “the commons” of a free society, and is best delivered as a public service.

Understood in this way, public education has a number of critical dimensions that are logically entailed in the idea of education as a public good. Briefly put, public schools

  • are publicly funded, with those funds equitably distributed among all schools
  • are democratically and transparently governed;
  • are operated as a public trust, on a not- for-profit basis;
  • educate all students, integrating different races and classes and serving high need students;
  • give voice to teachers, families, and students in important educational decisions;
  • are evaluated on a common set of performance metrics which assess their success at achieving the central purposes and mission of public education;
  • are centers of community life, with organic relationships to the neighborhoods and communities they serve; and
    educate for democratic citizenship.

Taken together, these dimensions provide a normative standard of what it means to be a public school in the fullest meaning of the term. The distinction between public education and private education is no longer seen as a fixed divide along a simple line of demarcation, but as a dynamic continuum in which a school can be more or less public. All schools, charter and district, can be evaluated against this normative standard.

Actually Existing Charter Schools

So where do charter schools fall out along this public–private continuum? For the organized charter school movement, most CMOs, and most charter schools, it is far to the private side. To be sure, the charter school movement has been quick to claim for itself the name “public”: the national organization of charter management calls itself the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). But it is

hard to see this appropriation of the term “public” as anything but a deeply cynical claim on public funding. NAPCS had no difficulty characterizing charter schools as “private” corporations when it filed an amicus brief on behalf of the management of a charter school, the Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA), which fought unionization by their teachers. CMSA argued it was a “private” school, because it was incorporated as a not- for-profit entity and governed by an independent board; this designation placed it under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board rather than the Illinois Labor Relations Board. The reason for this legal maneuver? It is easier to delay and obstruct efforts of teachers to unionize under the federal labor relations law.

In the area of governance, the boards of many charter schools—particularly those affiliated with charter school chains—are populated with the corporate and financial elite and sponsoring elected officials and not community representatives, educators, or families of students. In some states, educators and family members are even prohibited from sitting on boards. Boards are often reduced to the creatures of CMOs.1 Charter school educators and families generally know very little about their board’s decision-making process and have virtually no entrée to it.

Charter school educators and families generally know very little about their board’s decision-making process and have virtually no entrée to it.

In the charter school world, for-profit CMOs such as Imagine, White Hat, and K-12 make substantial amounts of money off real estate deals and management fees, while their affiliated schools perform poorly on academic measures.2 The problem of profiteering extends far beyond for-profit firms. Charter executives at ostensibly non-profit firms often make salaries more befitting the excesses of Wall Street than public service: for example, high-profile charter executives in New York City make as much as $500,000 annually for supervising a handful of schools, while the Chancellor of New York City public schools, who supervises over 1,700 district schools, makes a little over $210,000.3

Non-profit CMOs often charge exorbitant management fees that are taken directly out of public funds provided for the education of students: Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies recently increased their fee to 15 percent—$2,000 per student—of the public funds provided for their students’ education.4 And there is a growing problem of financial malfeasance and corruption in charter schools, concentrated in states that provide the weakest regulatory oversight.5

Despite the common complaint otherwise, many charter schools receive greater public funding than comparable district schools. A financial study of the most prominent charter school chain—KIPP—found that its schools received (on average) almost $1,800 per pupil in federal government grants, considerably more than com- parable district schools. When all public and private revenue was combined, KIPP schools had more than $6,500 in per pupil funding, 54 per- cent more than comparable district schools.6 In New York City, most charter schools receive

$2,000 more per pupil funding than district schools as a result of the policy of co-location, which provides free space in city schools, free utilities and free food, janitorial and security services.7 Yet despite this generous support from the public coffers, New York charter schools have fought the ability of the New York State Comptroller to audit their schools, a function regularly exercised with other public schools. Their argument? Charter schools are private entities, thus beyond the purview of democratically elected officials charged with auditing public agencies.8

When all public and private revenue was combined, KIPP schools had more than $6,500 in per pupil funding, 54 percent more than comparable district schools.

As a rule, charter schools enroll fewer numbers of high needs students—students with special needs and English language learners—than comparable district schools.9 Moreover, students in these categories they do admit tend to be students with lower levels of need.10 School practices and policies—especially among “no excuses” charter schools—lead to very high rates of attrition among high needs students.11 At the same time, there is a compelling body of evidence which points to charter schools as an exacerbating force in the re-segregation of American public schools.12 Charter schools are more racially segregating, for both majority and minority students, than comparable district schools; moreover, they are more economically segregating, tending to concentrate more of the very wealthy and the very poor students than comparable district schools. Charter advocates defend this segregation with the argument that charter schools are providing a superior education to the students with the great- est need. Yet the best research shows that a plurality of charter schools perform more poorly than district schools on standardized exams, and that the preponderance of charter schools perform either at the same level or more poorly than district schools. Only a minority of charter schools outperform district schools.13

Only a minority of charter schools outperform district schools.

In an age of mass incarceration with growing attention paid to the “school to prison pipeline,” the disciplinary policies of the “no excuses” chains that increasingly dominate the charter sector raise serious questions about the impact of those policies on the large numbers of poor African-American and Latino children they are responsible for educating. While expulsion rates of district public schools are certainly too high and must be reduced, they are dwarfed by the rates in charter schools: according to recent reports, in Chicago, charter schools expel students at twelve times the rate of district schools, and in Washington, D.C., charter schools expel students at twenty-eight times the rate of district schools.14 This is only one aspect of a disconcerting educational approach that focuses inordinately on student performance on standardized exams, with a consequential diminishment of a richer, broader curriculum and the civic purposes of schooling.15

As troubling as this evidence of the pursuit of a broad privatization agenda by charter school movement leadership, CMOs, and most charter schools is, it is not the complete picture. Throughout the United States, there are charter schools that could only be described as fully public schools on virtually every one of the eight dimensions identified above. Indeed, in many respects, these community charter schools are more fully public than their district school counterparts. They are a minority within the charter school sector, but there is no question that they exist.

A few examples of charter schools in this vein will illustrate the point.16 Amber Charter School in East Harlem is one of the oldest elementary charter schools in New York. It was founded in 2000 by the Association of Progressive Dominicans, a community-based organization, and has a number of partnerships with East Harlem and Latino community organizations. From its start, the school’s staff was represented by the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and has an active parent involvement. The school provides a dual language (Spanish and English) program of instruction, based on a rich curriculum, and actively engages its students in the East Harlem community. Bronx

Community Charter School is a newer New York City elementary charter school. It was founded by a group of New York City public school educators and families who wanted an alternative to the “test prep” culture forced upon schools under the Bloomberg and Klein administration, and its instructional program focuses on project-based learning, inquiry learning, and performance assessments. The school has deep roots in the Fordham neighbor- hood of the Bronx, and its staff is represented by the UFT.

If a school receives public money, it must be a public school in the fullest meaning of the term, educating for the common good.

What this complicated reality tells us is that the legal quality which defines a charter school as a charter school—its management by an independent board rather than by a government entity—is not of the greatest consequence for education understood as a public good. A civil society institution may even be better than a school district at having its schools focused on a fully public education. Rather, the crux of the problems we face is found in the privatizing policies and practices adopted by charter school management and in the market fundamentalism that currently dominates charter movement thinking, with its denigration of the common good in education. The struggle that needs to be waged is that if a school receives public money, it must be a public school in the fullest meaning of the term, educating for the common good.

Actually Existing District Schools

An intellectually honest discussion of the differences between charter schools and district schools must acknowledge that in a number of significant respects, district schools can and often do fall out along the private side of the private–public continuum. Take the vital issue of school segregation: district public schools in the United States are generally segregated by race and class. If charter schools were to disappear tomorrow, American public education would still be intensely segregated and still moving toward greater segregation. Charter schools have just intensified the move toward greater segregation. And the role of local financing for American public schools has created a public education system with yawning chasms of funding and resources between schools educating children of the well-to-do and schools educating children of the poor and working class.

These historic failings have provided the foes of public education and teacher unions within the charter school movement with openings to pursue their agenda of constructing a substitute system of schools, free of unions. Charter schools were strategically located in inner-city communities of color, where parents looked for alternatives to failing district schools that were often unsafe, poorly resourced, and segregated by race and class. In 2008, Democrats for Education Reform reported on a campaign on behalf of charter schools specifically targeting the historic African-American community of Harlem, which was then undergoing a wave of gentrification.17 The Walton Family Foundation of Walmart, a major giver to anti-union charter schools, decided in 2008 that it would only sup- port New York charter schools that were established in Harlem.18 By that time, Harlem had the second-greatest concentration of charter schools in the United States, second only to New Orleans.

Charter schools were strategically located in inner-city communities of color, where parents were looking for alternatives to failing district schools.

While issues such as race and class segregation, and disparities in funding and resources, are long-standing features of American education, over the last decade district schools have been subjected to an incremental privatization, in which the public “substance” of their education has been increasingly hollowed out. This incremental privatization has been the result of what can be called corporate education reform, as it is organized around the idea that public schools should be remade in the image and likeness of a for-profit business and corporation, much like the dominant model in the charter school sector. American public schools are a government monopoly, the indictment goes, and are thus not subject to competition; unlike “for-profit” businesses, they do not live or die dependent upon their performance in the marketplace. The solution is to create competition among public schools by establishing an educational “bottom line” for public schools that functions in much the same way as the profit-and-loss balance sheet functions for a business. That “bottom line” is to be provided by student scores on standardized exams.

This theory of action applied not only to schools but also to the educators who work in them. Corporate education reformers argue that public school teachers and supervisors have faced no consequences for poor performance,

because they are protected by civil service regulations, tenure laws, and collective bargaining agreements. Educators needed to be ranked, from the best to the worst, with the bottom 10 percent facing dismissal: this would create in the workplace a struggle in which the fittest, best performing educators survived and the weakest, lowest performing educators were eliminated. To achieve this ranking, evaluations would rely heavily upon student scores on standardized exams.

In combination, these changes have yielded a system of “test and sanction” accountability that has transformed American education for the worse. As student performance on standardized exams became the dominant organizing force behind school closures, teacher evaluations, and student graduations and promotions, district schools and teachers adapted to this new reality by focusing more and more on “test prep”— especially in struggling schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty. The curriculum has been narrowed and truncated at the expense of non-tested subjects, and the civic purposes of education are being lost.

The concentration of political power in the hands of management that is sought by corporate education reform is not limited to the internal workings of schools and districts: it has been extended to the overall governance of education. The rise of mayoral control in urban school districts has been a major component of corporate education reform, precisely because turning the mayor into the “sole decider” makes it easier to implement policies such as mass school closures that generate intense opposition in impacted communities.

On the new, more complex political terrain on which we now find ourselves, the old fixed understandings of the difference between public and private ill serve the cause of public education. A simple identification of charter schools as unambiguously public schools or private schools fails to grasp the crucial dimensions of the struggle over the character of charter schools at a time when we need to be focused, laser-like, on what would make charter schools truly and fully public schools. Similarly, a simple defense of district schools as public schools has all of the negative features of an unthinking defense of the status quo at a time when a critique of long-standing inequalities and the “incremental privatization” of district schools over the last decade is more important and more necessary than ever. Effective advocacy for the public character and public content of district schools demands criticism of the actually existing district schools as they have been reorganized under corporate education reform. In this moment of political peril, only a powerful, compelling vision of what it means to be a public school in the fullest meaning of the term “public” can save American public education.


  1. This phenomenon is sufficiently commonplace for the conservative, pro-charter Fordham Institute to cite it as a problem in a policy brief on charter governance. Adam Emerson, “Governance in the Charter School Sector: Time foraReboot,”availableathttp://edex.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/publication/pdfs/20130327- Governance-in-the-charter-school-sector-time- for-a-reboot-FINAL_7.pdf.
  2.  See Leo Casey, “Will Governor Cuomo Take On Outrageous Charter Superintendent Pay, Too?,” available at http://www.edwize.org/will- governor-cuomo-take-on-outrageous-charter- superintendent-pay-too; Rachel Monahan, “Top 16 NYC Charter School Executives Earn More than Chancellor Dennis Walcott,” New York Daily News, October 27, 2013, available at http:// www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/top-16-nyc-charter-school-execs-out-earn-chancel- lor-dennis-walcott-article-1.1497717.
  3. Juan Gonzalez, “Public Kept in Dark about Sweet Deals for Success Charter Network Schools,” New York Daily News, April 24, 2012, available at http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/public-dark-sweet-deals-success-charter-network- schools-article-1.1066368.
  4. Jeff Bryant, “Will Anyone Stop Charter School Corruption?,” available at http://educationop- portunitynetwork.org/will-anyone-stop-charter- school-corruption; Mark Palko, “How Will Charter Schools Deal with Their Corruption Scandals?,” Washington Post, Monkey Cage blog, August 8, 2014, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/ wp/2014/08/08/how-will-charter-schools-deal- with-their-corruption-scandals.
  5. Gary Miron, Jessica L. Urschel, and Nicholas Saxton, “What Makes KIPP Work? A Study of Student Characteristics, Attrition, and School Finance,” available at http://www.edweek.org/ media/kippstudy.pdf.
  6. Christina Collins, “Independent Budget Office Confirms Most NYC Charters Better Funded than District Schools,” available at http://www.edwize.org/independent-budget-office-con- firms-most-nyc-charters-better-funded-than- district-schools-2.
  7. Marlene Kennedy, “Charter School Claims State Can’t Audit It,” Courtroom News Service, July 11, 2013, available at http://www.court- housenews.com/2013/07/11/59266.htm.
  8. S. Government Accountability Office Report, “Charter Schools: Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities,” 2012, available at http://www.gao. gov/assets/600/591435.pdf; U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Education Needs to Further Examine Data Collection on English Language Learners in Charter Schools,” 2013, available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/655930.pdf; Matthew Di Carlo, “Do Charter Schools Serve Fewer Special Education Students?,” available at http://shankerblog.org/?p=6107; Jack Buckley and Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, “Are ELL Students Underrepresented in Charter Schools?,” Journal of School Choice 5, no. 1 (2011): 40-65.
  9.  United Federation of Teachers, “Separate and Unequal: The Failure of New York City’s Charter Schools to Serve the Neediest Students,” avail- able at http://www.uft.org/files/attachments/uft- report-2010-01-separate-and-unequal.pdf.
  10. Miron, Urschel, and Saxton, “What Makes KIPP Work?”; Christina Collins, “Charter Schools and Student Attrition: Not a Myth,” available at http:// www.edwize.org/charter-schools-and-student- attrition-not-a-myth; New York City Independent Budget Office, “Staying or Going? Comparing Student Attrition Rates at Charter Schools with Nearby Traditional Public Schools,” available at http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/2014attrition charterpublic.pdf.
  11. See Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel- Hawley, “A Segregating Choice? An Overview of Charter School Policy, Enrollment Trends, and Segregation,” in Educational Delusions? Why Choice Can Deepen Inequality and How to Make Schools Fair, ed. Gary Orfield and Erica Frankenberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 129-44; Julie Mead and Preston Green, Chartering Equity: Using Charter School Legislation and Policy to Advance Equal Educational Opportunity (Boulder: National Education Policy Center, 2012), available at http:// colorado.edu/publication/chartering-equity; Gary Miron, Jessica Urschel, William J. Mathis, and Elana Tornquist, Schools without Diversity: Education Management Organizations, Charter Schools, and the Demographic Stratification of the American School System (Boulder: Education and the Public Interest Center and Education Policy Research Unit, 2010), available at http:// reatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Miron_ Diversity.pdf
  12. There is a rather substantial body of research on the academic performance of charter schools and district schools, but it is of uneven quality. To date, the most comprehensive research has been the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) studies. The 2009 report is available at http://credo.stanford.edu/reports/ MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf and the 2013 report is available at http://credo.stanford. edu/documents/NCSS%202013%20Final%20 Draft.pdf.
  13. Valerie Strauss, “Chicago Charter Schools Expel Many More Kids than District Schools— New Data,” Washington Post, Answer Sheet Blog, February 26, 2014, available at http:// www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/26/chicago-charter-schools- expel-many-more-kids-than-district-schools-new- data/; Emma Brown, “D.C. Charter Schools Expel Students at Far Higher Rates than Traditional Public Schools,” Washington Post, Answer Sheet Blog, January 5, 2013, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-char- ter-schools-expel-students-at-far-higher-rates- than-traditional-public-schools/2013/01/05/ e155e4bc-44a9-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_story. html.
  14. On the classroom impact of the pedagogy and focus on standardized exams in “no excuses” charter schools, see Beth Sondel and Joseph L. Boselovic, “‘No Excuses’ in New Orleans,” Jacobin, July 24, 2014, available at http://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/07/ no-excuses-in-new-orleans.
  15. See Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter, A Smarter Charter (New York: Teachers College Press, 2014), which provides more detailed por- traits of a number of charter schools in this
  16. Democrats for Education Reform, “Flooding the Zone: How an Intense, Focused ‘School Choice’ Campaign in Harlem Increased Support for Reform,” June 24, 2008, available at http://www.edreformnow.org/Flooding%20The%20Zone.pdf.
  17. See April 2009 testimony of the United Federa- tion of Teachers to the education committee of the NewYorkCityCouncilat http://www.edwize.org/ put-the-public-back-in-public-charter-school.

1 thought on “The Charter School Challenge

  • Jim Mordecai

    Charter schools size needs to be reduced by caps not just by states but caps by districts. Next objective should be to make charter governing boards elected by the voters in the districts they are located. Governance of charter schools by private management needs to be replaced by charter schools governed by locally elected management boards.

    Final reform should be to pass state legislation to not to let education dollars sent to charter schools be spent on charter school association dues. Taxpayers’ money is then used to lobby in the interest of charter schools.

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