In 1988, Albert Shanker, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, gave a speech pitching his idea of a charter school: a publicly funded school under a charter from the government with fewer rules and restrictions than traditional schools. Shanker believed these schools could be used to embolden the American educational ideals of social mobility for working-class children and social cohesion among America’s progressively diverse population. While the idea was initially met with hesitation, recently charter schools have been embraced with fervor. But Shanker’s idea has been mangled in the process.
Charter schools were born from the ideals of diversity and social mobility. However, according to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, charter schools are even more racially and economically segregated than traditional schools. Charters regularly do not offer programs to support special needs students and English Language Learners (ELL). Students with low test scores or behavior problems are coerced out – back to their traditional schools, schools that now have fewer resources to serve its higher need population. It is these types of skimming and weeding out processes that make charter schools some of the least diverse in the nation. They have even been labeled “separate and unequal” by the NAACP.
While the loose regulations have been touted as charter schools’ crown jewel, they have led to an array of problems. Only 12 percent of the charter schools in the United States allow union representation for teachers. Despite the original charter philosophy, the schools have been used as workarounds for unions, to strengthen management and have led to educator turnover rates nearly twice that of traditional schools.
The limitation of rules also allows the chartered institutions to conduct suspicious financial practices. Philadelphia has just seen its eighth charter school official, out of 90 schools, plead guilty to counts of fraud and corruption. In addition, charter school management often hides finances from board members and nearly 13 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit organizations. While that number may seem small, a school’s primary goal should not be the lowest priority.
There are many examples of successful charter schools that embody Shanker’s vision of a democratic, diverse learning environment that encourages innovation. But, there are too many cash cows, too many fraudulent and corrupt institutions and too many union-busting, segregated charters in the current system. Charter schools are a good idea that, if done right, could revolutionize the American education system. But, before chartering is expanded, the system needs to be reeled in, purged of fraud and corruption and brought back to the original view Shanker championed.
On election day, Massachusetts voted on ballot question two, which would authorize the approval of up to 12 new charter schools or enrollment expansions in existing charter schools by the state per year. No matter what happens with ballot question two, Massachusetts must be wary of the dangers of charter schools and should proceed with caution with the expansion of the system.