This article originally appeared on AlterNet.
On successive days last week, editorials in two of America’s most influential daily newspapers slammed the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, for considering a proposed resolution calling for a nationwide moratorium on charter school expansion.
But both newspapers are misguided and uninformed about what the charter school industry is doing to America’s public schools. Their attempt to influence the NAACP board’s vote this weekend reveals that they don’t understand or care to understand how the industry is dominated by corporate franchises with interstate ambitions to privatize K-12 schools.
What do the drafters of the NAACP resolution understand that these editorial boards do not? They know that the charter industry was the creation of some of the wealthiest billionaires in America, from the Walton family heirs of the Walmart fortune, to Microsoft’s Bill Gates, to Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, Reed Hastings, Mark Zuckerberg and others, including hedge fund investors. These billionaires have pumped billions into creating a new privatized school system where those running schools can profit and evade government oversight. These very rich Americans aren’t trying to fix traditional public schools, but create a parallel, privately run system that’s operating in a separate and unequal world inside local school districts.
How separate and unequal is the charter world? Their most antidemocratic accomplishment may be destroying the tradition of local control over schools by allowing private charter school boards to replace locally elected and appointed officials. These boards do not have to be composed of district residents, don’t have to hold open meetings, don’t have to bid or disclose contracts, and do not have to publicly reveal much of anything about their operations. As a result, privatizers have been able to tap into more than $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies in recent years, of which at least $200 million has been misspent or vanished in a spectrum of self-dealing scandals documented by public interest groups and investigative reporters in every state where charter schools exist.
The Times, at least, admits that there have been problems with poorly functioning charters. Trying to sound reasonable, the editorial cites a respected Stanford University study saying better charters have had good academic results, even though the opposite has happened in cities like Detroit, where half the students attend “significantly worse” charters. They cite demand from parents as evidence that the schools must be working, not mentioning the industry’s marketing routinely trashes traditional K-12 schools. And they say it’s disingenuous for the NAACP to claim charters have reintroduced segregation, because many inner cities are predominately non-white.
The Post editorial sneers at the NAACP and brags about a handful of locally successful charter schools, but completely ignores that the industry is dominated by corporate franchises whose business plans have left a nationwide trail of fiscal abuses and misuse of taxpayer funds. The Post dismisses the NAACP resolution as a sour grapes response funded by teachers unions upset that the charter industry is stridently anti-union.
Next week, the Independent Media Institute, of which AlterNet is a project, will publish a major report and ebook on the charter industry. "Who Controls Our Schools?" looks closely at the industry's many anti-democratic impacts and a business model prone to self-dealing. Today’s charter school industry is a far cry from what education reformers imagined 25 years ago, when they first suggested local districts create experimental schools.
The Times and The Post fail to see the charter school industry for what it is — a privatization juggernaut. It receives massive funding from the richest Americans, who incorrectly blame traditional schools for not solving poverty. It benefits from seductive marketing that goes unquestioned, with major media often acting as its propaganda wing. In too many communities, charters present a false hope, as many local activists and parent groups have found. Scarce funds are redirected from traditional schools, students are cherry-picked as communities are roiled and divided, and better educational outcomes are not guaranteed.
As the Center for Media and Democracy reported, more than 2,500 charter schools failed and closed between 2000 and 2013. That’s nearly 30 percent of 6,700 charters in operation nationally today with more than 3 million students. Yet even with that record of failure, the industry seeks to run up to half the schools in major cities across America, from Los Angeles to Atlanta, and would take over entire districts if given the chance (as has happened in several states).
The NAACP is correct in calling for a moratorium on further charter expansion until the industry and its impacts are fully known and discussed. You would think the Times and the Post might join the NAACP’s call for a moratorium to understand what is happening as a privatization wave keeps growing and displacing a democratic institution. The stakes are nothing less than the future of our public schools.