Most Charter Schools are Public Schools in Name ONLY


Charter schools are public schools.

But are they?


They don’t look like a duck. They don’t quack like a duck. Do you really want to serve them confit with a nice orange sauce?

Sure, charters are funded by tax dollars. However, that’s usually where the similarities end.

They don’t teach like public schools, they don’t spend their money like public schools, they don’t treat students or parents like public schools – in fact, that’s the very reason they exist – to be as unlike public schools as possible.

Advocates claim charters exist as laboratory schools. They are free to experiment and find new, better ways of doing things. Once they’ve proven their successes, these improved practices will eventually trickle down to our more traditional houses of learning.

At least, that’s the ideal behind them. But to my knowledge it’s never happened.

As a public school teacher, I can never recall being at a training where charter operators taught us how to do things better with these time-tested strategies. I do, however, recall watching excellent co-workers furloughed because my district had to meet the rising costs of payments to our local charters.

Moreover, if the freedom to experiment is so important, why not give that privilege to all public schools, not just a subset?

The reality is much different than the ideal. In the overwhelming majority of cases, charter schools are vastly inferior to their more traditional brethren. To understand why, we need to see the differences between these two kinds of learning institutions and why in every case the advantage goes to our much-maligned, long suffering traditional public schools:

1) Charters Don’t Accept all Students

Charter schools are choosey. They don’t take just any old students. They only accept the ones they want. And the ones they want are usually easy and less expensive to teach.

The process is called “Creaming” because they only pick the cream of the crop. Then when these students who are already doing well continue to do well at a charter, the administrators take all the credit. It’s as if they were saying – Look how well we teach. All these former A-students continue to get A’s here at our school. It’s really quite an achievement. (Not.)

However, sometimes the bait-and-switch isn’t so obvious. Occasionally, charters actually do accept special needs and/or difficult students – for a few months. Then when the big standardized test is coming up, they quietly give these kids the boot. That way they can claim they accept everyone but still get excellent standardized test scores.

Ironically, that’s what they mean by “School Choice.” It’s usually touted as a way of giving alternatives to parents and students. In reality, the choice only goes to administrators. Not “Which school do YOU want to attend?” but “Which students do WE want to accept to make our charter look good?”

Keep in mind, this situation is allowed by law. Charters are legally permitted to discriminate against whichever students they want.

By contrast, traditional public schools accept all students who live within the district. It doesn’t matter if children have special needs and therefore cost more to educate. If a child lives within district boarders, your neighborhood public school will take him or her in and provide the best experience possible.

Bean counters complain about poor test scores, but traditional public schools aren’t gaming the system. They aren’t weeding out difficult students. They take everyone. Administrators have no choice. This is dictated by law. Public schools are equal opportunity educators.

2) Charters Have No Transparency

Have you ever been to a school board meeting? Ever listened to school directors debate the merits of one course of action versus another? Ever looked over public documents detailing district finances and how money is spent? Ever read over bids vendors provide for services? Ever spoken at a public meeting to school directors about what you think is the best way to proceed in a given situation? Ever had a school director or two disappoint and then worked to vote him or her out of office?

At traditional public schools, you can do all of this – even if you don’t have any children in the school system! At a charter school, you’re out of luck.

Charters rarely have to tell you how they spend their money, rarely debate management decisions in public, rarely invite or even permit you a seat in the audience. Heck! They don’t have to!

Charters survive on public money, but once that money goes in those charter doors, the public never sees it again. If you don’t like how the charter is treating your child, you can remove the little dear from the school. But if a non-parent doesn’t like how they suspect the charter is spending his or her tax money, there is absolutely no recourse. You are taxed without any representation. Wars have been fought over such things. It’s hard to imagine how that can be Constitutional.

In sum, traditional public schools are like most other government organizations. They are required by law to be transparent to the public. Charter schools, however, are money pits and what goes down those gaping holes is lost forever from public view.

3) Charters Advertise

Have you ever seen those huge billboards by the side of the road trying to convince motorists to send their children to a charter chain? Ever hear a radio advertisement about how happy little kiddos are at Brand X Charter School?

Those advertisements cost money. Your money, to be exact. You paid for those commercials. And what’s more, every penny spent on those glossy advertisements is one less that actually goes to educate your child.

By contrast, traditional public schools are not allowed to advertise. All their budget dollars have to be spent on things broadly educational. They have to spend on books, teachers, building upkeep, etc.

Not only are charters allowed to keep quiet about how they spend their money, even if they told you, it doesn’t all have to be spent on the children in their care. What could possibly go wrong with that?

4) Charters Defraud the Public

Despite all their best efforts at secrecy, charter school operators have been caught in countless financial scandals in recent years. According to Integrity in Education$200 million in taxpayer money was lost, misused, or wasted in just 15 of the 42 states that have charter schools.

These aren’t mere allegations. These abuses are well documented. The report states: “Charter operators have used school funds illegally to buy personal luxuries for themselves, support their other businesses, and more.”

Mountains of evidence demonstrate fraud throughout the country: Schoolchildren defrauded in Pennsylvania; “out-of-control” charters in Michigan and Florida; rampant misspending in Ohio; bribes and kickbacks, also in Ohio; revenues directed to a for-profit company in Buffalo, NY; subpoenas for mismanaged charters in Connecticut. Heck! In California alone, $100 million in fraud losses were expected just last year.

And that’s just the fraud we can see!

I’m not saying our traditional public schools are scandal free, but nothing like this level of malfeasance has been revealed. Traditional schools are under much stricter regulations. People are actually watching to make sure nothing like these charter scandals happen at our time-tested neighborhood schools. They are much better value for your money.

5) Charters Often Get Worse Results

It all comes down to teaching and learning. When we compare the results at charters versus traditional public schools, who does better?

Bottom line: the research shows that the overwhelming majority of charter schools are no better – and often much worse than traditional public schools. This is true even of studies backed by the charter school industry, itself!

For example, a recent study by charter-friendly CREDO found that in comparison to traditional public schools “students in Ohio charter schools perform worse in both reading and mathematics.”

In a study of Chicago’s public schools, the University of Minnesota Law School found that “Sadly the charter schools, which on average score lower that the Chicago public schools, have not improved the Chicago school system, but perhaps made it even weaker.”

Another report from Data First – part of the Center for Public Education – says, “the majority of charter schools do no better or worse than traditional public schools.”

However, there is plenty of evidence of charter schools producing dismal academic results for students. For instance, a Brookings report showed low performance in Arizona’s charter schools. A District of Columbia researcher for In the Public Interest group, “could not provide a single instance in which its strategy of transferring a low-performing school to a charter management organization had resulted in academic gains for the students.” The Minnesota Star Tribune reported that “Students in most Minnesota charter schools are failing to hit learning targets and are not achieving adequate academic growth.” Over 85 percent of Ohio’s charter students were in schools graded D or F in 2012–2013. In the celebrated New Orleans charter experiment, the Investigative Fund found that “eight years after Hurricane Katrina…seventy-nine percent of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education.”

That’s not exactly a record of success!

Meanwhile, our traditional public schools often do a much better job.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that U.S. math and reading skills have improved for all levels of public school students since the 1970s, with the greatest gains among minority and disadvantaged students. Other results indicate that our schools achieve even greater success when properly funded.

The facts seem pretty clear. Charter schools are not like traditional public schools at all.

Most charter schools are a losing prospect for our children and our Democracy. Yet well-funded corporate lobbying interests continue to push charters as a public policy solution while instigating the closure of an increasing number of traditional public schools.

This is like closing hospitals and opening clinics on the power of crystals, snake oil and phrenology.

We need a national moratorium on new charter schools. We need to investigate every existent charter to determine if each are providing a quality service to students and not just the charter’s corporate share holders.

We know what works, and it isn’t charter schools. Support your friendly, neighborhood, traditional public school.

57 thoughts on “Most Charter Schools are Public Schools in Name ONLY

  1. Reblogged this on Politicians Are Poody Heads and commented:
    If the charters are publicly funded, they should be overseen and regulatated by, and answerable to, the public, just like regular public schools. If they want no regulation and oversight, then they should not receive any taxpayers dollars.
    This push to privatize the public schools, but keep the public dollars, is complete corporate greed at work.
    Welcome to the oligarchy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So, we should review the actions of and have oversight over all entities that contract with the government?

      As for advertising – maybe public schools should do that as well.

      And not taking all pupils – why should any school try to educate all pupils? It’s too complicated. Don’t forget public schools contract out some of their most challenging disabled children.

      Finally, think about how little progress public schools have made in the last 45+ years, while inflation-adjusted per-pupil funding has nearly tripled! That’s the ‘Crime of the Century,’ a fraud that makes Bernie Madoff look like an amateur. Yes, some charters have been poorly run, even dishonest – and so have some public schools.


      • Per pupil funding has increased but not equally at every district. The average per pupil expenditure for U.S. secondary students is $12,731. But that figure is deceiving. It is an average. Some kids get much more. Many get much less. It all depends on where you live. If your home is in a rich neighborhood, more money is spent on your education than if you live in a poor neighborhood. In addition, unfunded legislative mandates and court decisions have made U.S. public schools responsible for many things that international schools are not. About one third of all budget increases in recent years has gone to support special education students; 8 percent went to dropout prevention programs, alternative instruction, and counseling aimed at keeping students in school; another 8 percent went to expand school lunch programs; and so forth. Very few additional dollars were provided for needs associated with basic instruction.

        In short, the problem with school funding isn’t waste. It’s that we’ve made our public schools responsible for everything. Meanwhile we have an epidemic of child poverty. Please see my article “Do Americans “Throw Money” At Their Schools? A Fair Funding Primer” here:

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The 1998 law that created charter schools in New York specifically states that they must focus on students “at risk of academic failure”. But in reality, NY charter schools do the exact opposite.

    So I asked former governor Pataki to comment on the unintended consequences of his law, where charter schools cherry pick the most motivated families. His answer is very evasive and shows how out-of-touch he is with the voting public.


    Liked by 2 people

  3. Your points apply equally well to schools that I think you would call public schools

    1) Public schools do not have to accept everyone. School districts employ detectives to discover students who live outside the district and attend the schools. School districts have bounties on students who live outside the district and attend the schools. School districts send students home if they have insufficient documentation that they live in the district. Parents who send children to the wrong public school are guilty of theft of services and in rare cases, have been imprisoned because of that theft. Thus is ubiquitous in public education, even in my little town.

    Charter schools must obey state law, generally accepting students as long as there are seats and holding a lottery if all the seats are full. This is the general practice for magnet programs in traditional public schools. Perhaps this also makes magnet schools not public schools.

    The most restrictive schools, of course, are the qualified admission high schools like Thomas Jefferson in Virginia or Stuyvesant in NYC. They require each student to have a sufficiently high score on a standardized exam for enrollment. I would think that you must categorize those schools as public schools in name only.

    2) Public Schools have no transparency. School board elections have notoriously poor turn out and are easily captured by a small motivated group of special interest voters. This problem has been so bad in some locations that school boards were abolished and mayors given control. Mayoral control has many backers, including Dr. Diane Ravitch.

    This depends on state law, but in New York charter schools must file an annual report ( Here is a link to the reports for the Community Roots Charter School and a copy of audited financial statements ) Would you like to compare these documents to NYC Public to check which is more transparent?

    3) Public Schools advertise. Have you ever seen a real estate listing for a home that did not include the school district and catchment area?

    Some school districts go further:

    “In 2009, the San Antonio Independent School District signed a $180 billion contract with a marketing firm that had also worked with grocery chains and hotels. The marketing plan for San Antonio’s schools, as the Wall Street Journal reported, was to include “radio spots, billboards, Twitter feeds, online banner ads and promotional videos on YouTube.””

    Perhaps there are no real public schools in San Antonio.

    In some states charter schools are required to advertise in order to make gaming enrollment harder. It is a condition of them being a public school, not a reason to think they are not public schools.

    4) Public schools defraud the public. Seattle Public Schools misspent $3 million. Winchester Connecticut public schools likely to close a school because finance director embezzles $2 million. Rossyn New York taxpayers bilked of $11.2 million. The list goes on and on.

    5) Public schools often get worse results than charter schools. This is also supported by various studies.


    • teachingeconomist, you are not very good with facts. If a student doesn’t live within the district, he/she has no right to go there. Otherwise, the child would be defrauding the taxpayers whose money is used to pay for that school. Are you being purposefully obtuse? Magnet schools are a different animal. They are no more restrictive than advanced placement classes. But don’t get me started on tracking. I’m not a fan. Second, you lose all credibility saying that public schools have no transparency. Sure, some schools could use more transparency. But the amount of transparency you get with a traditional public school compared to that you get with most charters is dramatically different. I can’t believe you could write that with a straight face. It is ridiculous. By the way, you are wrong about Ravitch’s position on mayoral control. She, like me, is an advocate of local control. Third, real estate listings are not advertisements. You’re just making things up. Please fact check next time before you post here.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Number three is incorrect. Public schools are not responsible for the advertising that goes into real estate listings. That is a ploy that real estate agents and developers use to sell houses for more money. And developers will go to great lengths to make sure their development feeds into a specific school even when districts are overcrowded.


  4. It’s a tough subject. I have a daughter who will be starting high school in a couple of years. Here are my choices: 1) Magnet high school with top-notch academics, middle class but very ethnically diverse student body, paid for with tax dollars. Unfortunately my daughter doesn’t have the grades to get in. 2) Local public high school; ethnically diverse, most kids are lower class; there was a shooting there last year. Abysmal test scores. 3) Private high school. $10,000 a year tuition bill; not much diversity in student body, majority of students middle to upper middle class; college prep curriculum only or 4) Charter high school. Diverse but mostly middle class student body; no testing requirement for admission but a few hoops that tend to keep the bottom of the barrel students out. No tuition. Good test scores. Way more applicants than slots.

    As a parent, that charter school looks mighty good. There is a strong tradition of private education in this area. Up until about 10 years ago the rules for transferring to another public school in the district were pretty lax and middle class parents tended to work the system and get their kids into the schools that were perceived to be good (and which were probably that way because they were whiter and richer than the others). A lawsuit put an end to that, and now, unless you get into the magnet schools or your school reaches the failing point, you are stuck–and middle class parents don’t like being stuck. More and more young couples are moving to nearby school districts with whiter, richer populations (and schools with better test scores). What should parents do? “Work to improve all the schools” sounds good, but I don’t have the ability to “fix” a large school system in the next two years; I need a good school for my daughter and if a charter is a way I can get one, well, I’ll give it a shot.


    • RAnn, I sympathize with you. When my daughter started school two years ago, we debated many of the things you mention. However, enrolling her in the local public school was the best thing we could have done. Don’t believe the hype about failing schools. If she has the support at home and applies herself, she’ll do well wherever she goes. Opportunities are everywhere. Moreover, nothing beats going to an ethnically diverse school. It forces you to learn how to deal with people from all walks of life. It shows you that there are no “Others.” There are only people. I am so grateful I had that experience, myself, and I see it in my daughter, too. We can’t have that and excellent schools if people abandon our public schools. That’s what the oligarchs want us to do. Ultimately only you can decide what’s best for your daughter, but remember she will learn what is right by reference to your actions.


  5. […] Charter schools have increased exponentially across the country in the last two decades, but they have little transparency or accountability. As a result, monetary scandals have exploded like wildfire from state-to-state. Millions of public dollars have disappeared into private corporations’ bank accounts leaving little to show for it. […]


  6. […] It’s about replacing the end-of-the-year standardized test with daily mini stealth assessments that are just as high stakes and just as effective at providing an excuse for the state or the feds to swoop in and steal control, disband the school board and give the whole shebang to the charter school operator who gives them the most generous campaign donations. […]


  7. […] Charter schools model themselves on private schools so they are likewise discriminatory. The businesses who run these institutions – often for a profit – don’t have to enroll whoever applies. Even though they are fully funded by public tax dollars, they can choose who to let in and who to turn away. Often this is done behind the cloak of a lottery, but with no transparency and no one checking to ensure it is done fairly, there is no reason to believe operators are doing anything but selecting the easiest (read: cheapest) students to educate. […]


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