Charter schools are destined to be viewed by future generations as having been on “the wrong side of history.” But like other current education reforms, on the surface at least, charter schools seem like a good idea to a variety of people. Proponents of charter schools range from conservatives to progressives and from corporations to local communities. Motivations to open charter schools or to charter existing public schools also vary widely. I am not in a position to criticize specific communities of color that look to charter their neighborhood schools in search of educational autonomy. There are no doubt altruistic reasons for such communities to seek charter opportunities, but despite their high profile within the school choice movement, these situations represent the exception to the overarching education reform narrative.
There are in fact two charter narratives; 1. The surface narrative that claims that charter schools are all about opportunity and innovation and 2. The hidden narrative that is entirely about profit and the segregation of students based on race and economics. The surface narrative is complete pretense. “Opportunity” is a major selling point for progressive reformers like former Newark, New Jersey mayor, Cory Booker. And “innovation” is the ruse utilized by corporate reform machines like “XQ America.”
Many times, those who are privy to the hidden narrative of a particular charter school represent a relatively small percentage of all those somehow involved in the life of that school. For this reason, it is worth creating a few categories to better understand the various roles that are played in the typical charter school. These are admittedly broad strokes. Generalizations can be useful in the dismantling of systems of oppression. So the retort of “not all charters” is no more valid than the defensive positions of “not all men” or “not all white people.”
Every charter school starts with a scheme. And schemes never occur naturally. There are always schemers. More often than not, charter school schemers are corporate goons, philanthropists, socialites, and/or politicians. Schemers begin meeting in secret years before the doors of the charter school open for “business.” Successfully chartering a school requires long term strategies. The scheme is the angle. Every charter school has an angle, because if there is no angle, there is no need for a charter.
The retort of “not all charters” is no more valid than the defensive positions of “not all men” or “not all white people.”
The charter schools that claim to be the most “public” still have secrets; policies, practices, and long term goals conceived and held behind closed doors. The schemers control the surface narrative as well as the hidden narrative. What allows schemers to have such unbridled influence is the regulatory policies (or lack thereof) written into charter school laws. As Steven Singer has shown, “The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School.”
Some charter school schemers are corporations, because according to the Supreme Court, corporations are people. The secretive nature and the lack of regulation at every charter school is a perfect fit for the profit driven interests of corporations. Philanthropists interested in investing in education should always be met with extreme skepticism. Mark Zuckerberg may genuinely care about American students, but he cares about money a hell of a lot more.
In contrast to the knowingly deceptive activities of the schemers, charter schools are full of well-meaning, misguided teachers. Many highly qualified educators with experience teaching in neighborhood schools find themselves drawn to charter schools for a variety of reasons. Others teach at charter schools as a way of subverting the requirements for certification with the state department of education. As unfortunate as it is to have under-qualified educators in classrooms, it is still highly likely that these teachers have the very best of intentions. Chances are that teachers at any given charter school have little to no connection to the hidden narrative. Charter school teachers are almost never schemers.
That being said, charter school teachers are still complicit in all wrongdoing of the schemers. Much has been written concerning the problematic nature of charter schools. Teachers may make the political decision to ignore the warning signs, but they are still responsible for the readily available information. They are accomplices in the schemes of 21st century education reform. Ten years ago, the argument of “I didn’t know” may have held water, but today, this position is indefensible. The most common defense is “my school is different.” This is likely to be a sincerely held belief, but a belief that reveals how the hidden narrative is withheld from everyone but the schemers.
Mark Zuckerberg may genuinely care about American students, but he cares about money a hell of a lot more.
Every charter school has a hand full of ill-intentioned schemers, a much larger number of teacher accomplices, and an even larger number of students who merely function as pawns. Charter school students are not the architects of school improvement plans. Students don’t spin words like gentrification into something more palatable like urban revitalization programs. Some charter school parents may be schemers, but this does not implicate the students in any way. To put it very plainly, students at charter schools are being used for the nefarious purposes of the schemers.
In the case of “for profit” corporate charters, students are quite literally being victimized by unbridled capitalism. These students have been reduced to their monetary value. To profit driven corporations, students merely represent numbers, numbers that contribute to the company bottom line. In bourgeois white “urban renewal” charter schools, students are unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly) participating in a sophisticated 21st century system of segregation.
The relationship between teachers and students comprises most of what happens at school every day. This reality allows authentic learning to occur at charter schools that is proximate to the learning that occurs at neighborhood public schools. But authentic learning is not an essential part of the charter hidden narrative. The plotting of the few schemers is a constant threat to any ingenuous learning occurring at charter schools. But there is time. There is time still for corporations to be systemically expelled from every area of American education. And there is time still for educators, families, students, and community members to organize to stop the proliferation of charter schools and get on “the right side of history.”