Letter: The Problems With Charter Schools

To the Editor:

Though I support equitable public choice and governance in education, public education is becoming big business as bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity investors enter what they consider to be an “emerging market,” the charter school movement. Valley News columnist Steve Nelson (“Big Money Threatens American Education,” April 6) referred to the Walton Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation seeking “to privatize education and turn it into another free market commodity.” Rupert Murdoch acknowledged that “(w)hen it comes to K-12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone.” As a national marketplace for hardware, software, textbooks and even taking over the running of a school, education becomes a private good or commodity.

These actions beg the questions: Are there key practices for which the public needs to be directly engaged? What are the risks of transferring such responsibilities to private enterprises?

Given the emphasis on test scores as measures of success, most schools aim for the highest possible scores. To achieve this outcome, charter schools tend to select fewer students with disabilities, fewer English learners, and a less poor population of students than their surrounding public schools. Despite this selection bias, charter school performance has not met expectations. Some examples: In 2013, Ohio charters were deemed inferior to traditional schools in all grade/subject combinations. In Louisiana, about two-thirds of charters received a D or an F from the Louisiana State Department of Education in 2013. In Wisconsin, a majority of charter schools failed to meet state expectations in 2012-2013

Charter schools were originally formed to collaborate with public schools, experimenting with strategies for working with difficult-to-teach kids and sharing these lessons with public schools. But competition and the free market system have prevailed. Michael Sandel at Harvard observes that the concept of markets has expanded into parts of our society that have traditionally been governed by non-market norms. The risks are serious. Once a public service or asset is privatized, we, the public, lose the ability to have a voice in decisions affecting that service or asset. Are we willing to support schools no longer controlled by a government accountable to the public?

Bob Scobie