Education Funding Opinion

Are Charters the Silver Bullet?

By Diane Ravitch — October 12, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman’” has dominated the air waves for the past few weeks with its message that public education is a failed enterprise and that privately managed charters are the answer to our nation’s education problems. The film doesn’t include a single successful public school teacher or public school. It is a one-sided, propagandistic attack on public education which echoes the prescriptions of those who have devoutly wished for the privatization of education. I imagine the shade of Milton Friedman chortling as his ideas about school choice become the rallying cry for the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and various big-city superintendents allied with allegedly liberal forces.

Before we hop aboard the charter train, which is now driven by Race to the Top and other federal funding, we should pay attention to warning signs. There are new ones every day. In the past few days, I have learned of the following issues.

  • The ICEF charter chain in California, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, was just bailed out by the Broad Foundation and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. The founder of the chain, which enrolls 4,500 students, has resigned. No wonder there is more pressure by foundations and wealthy philanthropists to get more government funding for charters. Many charters and charter chains are not financially sustainable; they have discovered no secrets about economizing and their financial backers can’t always be there to save them.
  • The principal of a charter school in Los Angeles was accused of embezzling more than $1 million of school funds; auditors said more than $2 million was missing and that some of it spent for vendors with fraudulent addresses.
  • In New York state, the state charter association sued to block any public audits, saying that their charter freed them from such intrusive public oversight. The steady accumulation of financial scandals in these deregulated schools is proof that, where public funds go, public audits must follow, as night follows day.
  • Inquiring minds should visit “charterschoolscandals,” a site maintained by Sharon R. Higgins, a diligent, energetic public school parent in Oakland, Calif.
  • Newsweek ran a story about the maltreatment of students with special needs in the New Orleans school districts. Astonishing numbers of children with disabilities are being mistreated, suspended, and failing to make progress in numbers far different from what happens to similar students in comparable districts. Charter schools are taking less than their fair share of students with disabilities. The article asks pointedly:
    ...does the much-touted academic progress of New Orleans's post-Katrina charters come in part because special-needs students are being weeded out?"

  • One of New York City’s most-publicized charter schools, the Ross Global Academy, is in a heap of trouble. Founded by Courtney Sale Ross, the fabulously wealthy widow of media mogul Steve Ross, the school was a favorite of the New York City Department of Education. Chancellor Joel Klein tried to give it space in the building of a very successful school for gifted children (NEST+M), but the parents fiercely battled against the “co-location” in their building, so Klein opened Ross in the palatial ground floor of the DOE’s Tweed headquarters. As it grew, it moved to a larger space, but its problems grew, too. Despite favorable publicity, the school has gone through six principals in five years, has high teacher turnover, high student attrition rates, and poor test scores. The New York Daily News says it is now the lowest-rated elementary or middle school in the city. See here and here and here.
  • I received an email from Dr. DeWayne Davis, the principal of Audubon Middle School in Los Angeles, which was sent to several public officials. Dr. Davis said that local charter schools were sending their low-performing students to his school in the middle of the year. He wrote:
    Since school began, we enrolled 159 new students (grades 7 and 8). Of the 159 new students, 147 of them are far below basic (FBB)!!! Of the 147 students who are FBB, 142 are from charter schools. It is ridiculous that they can pick and choose kids and pretend that they are raising scores when, in fact, they are purging nonperforming students at an alarming rate—that is how they are raising their scores, not by improving the performance of students. Such a large number of FBB students will handicap the growth that the Audubon staff initiated this year, and further, will negatively impact the school's overall scores as we continue to receive a recurring tide of low-performing students."

Deborah, in all these stories, I see a theme: Our political leaders are pushing an agenda that is wrong. The research is clear that charter schools vary dramatically in their quality. Some are excellent, some are awful, some are run by terrific leaders, some are run by incompetents, some use their resources wisely, some are wasteful and/or greedy.

Those promoting the privatization of American public education are blinded by free-market ideology. They refuse to pay attention to evidence, whether it be research or the accumulating anecdotal evidence of misbehavior, incompetence, fraud, greed, and chicanery that the free market facilitates. Let us celebrate the few charter schools that get, as Davis Guggenheim puts it, “amazing results,” but let us recognize that they are not 17 percent of charters (the number in the CREDO study that outperformed traditional public schools). Doing better than an under-resourced neighborhood school is not the same as getting “amazing results.” Very few charters do. Probably less than 5 percent.

Charters are not a silver bullet. They are a lead bullet. Their target is American public education.


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