Charter Schools and Voucher Schools are Virtually Identical

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The stark orange monolith that was Donald Trump is starting to crumble.

And with it so are the dreams of corporate education reformers everywhere.

Where in previous administrations they could pass off their policies as Democratic or Republican depending on whichever way the wind blows, today their brand has been so damaged by Trump’s advocacy, they fear it may never recover.

Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they could champion both charter schools and school vouchers with impunity. But now the privatizers and profiteers hiding in progressive clothing are trying desperately to rebrand.

Not only is Trump’s voucher plan deeply unpopular, but the public has already begun to associate any kind of school privatization with a doomed President.

So like cockroaches, neoliberals have begun to skitter to one type of privatization over another. Fake Democrats hide beneath unfettered charter school expansion. Bought-and-sold Republicans cling to the idea that we should spend taxpayer dollars on private and parochial schools.

But is there a real substantial difference between each of these so-called “choice” schemes? Or are they both just scams when compared with traditional public schools?


Charter Schools and Private Schools are basically the same thing.

The biggest difference between the two is funding.

Charter schools are completely funded by tax dollars. Private schools – even when school vouchers are used – often need to be subsidized by parents. For instance, many private schools charge tuition of $30,000 – $40,000 a year. Vouchers rarely provide more than $6,000. So at best they bring the cost down but still make it impossible for most students to attend private schools.

Sure they may start as an effort to allow only impoverished children to use tax dollars towards private and parochial school tuition. But they soon grow to include middle class and wealthy children, thus partially subsidizing attendance at the most exclusive schools in the country for those families who can already afford it.

Parochial schools, meanwhile, are exactly the same except for one meaningful difference. They teach religion.

Their entire curriculum comes from a distinctly religious point of view. They indoctrinate youth into a way of seeing the world that is distinctly non-secular.

Progressives complain that using tax dollars to pay for student tuition at such schools – even only partial tuition – violates a foundational principal of our nation.

Using public money to pay for religious teaching has historically been interpreted as a violation of the establishment clause of the first Amendment to the Constitution – namely, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Thomas Jefferson called it “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

This is further exacerbated in many parochial schools where religious teaching includes a blatant political bias toward conservatism. Children at many of these schools are taught that supply side economics, voter disenfranchisement and prejudice are normative bedrock truths.

These are the main distinctions between voucher and charter schools.

In short, they’re not all exactly the same. And corporate reform apologist are trying to rebuild their brand on these split hairs.

But the similarities between these types of school are much more striking.


The biggest commonality between these types of educational institutions is how they’re run. Unlike traditional public schools – which are governed by duly-elected school boards – charter, private and parochial schools are overseen by private interests. They are administered by independent management firms. They rarely have elected school boards. Their operators rarely make decisions in public, and their budgets and other documents are not open to review by taxpayers. This is true despite the fact that they are funded to varying degrees by public tax dollars.

So in all three cases, these schools are run privately, but taxpayers pick up the tab.

It’s ironic. Sending kids to charters, private and parochial schools with public money is called school choice. However, each of these types of schools gives taxpayers much less choice about how their money is being spent.

The community funds the school, but almost all decisions are made by people outside of the community – people appointed, in fact, by bureaucrats or business managers.

To be sure, parents can express their displeasure of administrative decisions by disenrolling their children in the school. But beyond this nuclear option, they are powerless. Even more troubling, taxpayers without children or with children who do not attend these schools have no say whatsoever about how their money is spent.

And to add insult to injury, it doesn’t even really allow the parents to choose which schools their children attend. They can put in a request for their kids to attend a choice school, but enrollment decisions are made by these same private equity managers. In short, administrators make the ultimate choice – not parents.

If the religious school doesn’t want to accept your child for whatever reason including operators’ disapproval of your religious beliefs, they don’t have to accept him. If the private school doesn’t want to accept your child based on race, gender or nationality, they don’t have to accept him. If the charter school doesn’t want to accept your child because of bad grades or troublesome behaviors, they don’t have to accept him.

The traditional public school, however, cannot refuse a child who lives in district borders for any of these reasons. In effect, school choice really isn’t about parental choice. It’s about increasing choice for the operators of privatized schools – letting them choose their students and how to spend your money without any meaningful input from you.

And it’s true at all three types of school!

Those are pretty considerable similarities. Moreover, they highlight major differences between these so-called choice schools and traditional public schools.

This is important because we don’t even have to get into the academic records of individual schools. The way each type of school is structured shows the clear inferiority of choice schools compared to traditional public schools.

By their very structure, public schools give parents and taxpayers much more agency in children’s education and how taxpayer money is spent.

Second, the latitude for school administrators to perpetrate fraud on the public is maximized in so-called choice schools and minimized in public schools. This doesn’t mean public schools are perfect, but it is much better to have a school under public scrutiny and local control than otherwise. This is demonstrated by the huge numbers of charter school scandals popping up in the news every day, where charters close suddenly, money is misspent on luxury items for operators that have nothing to do with education, and – especially in cyber charters – the quality of education students receive is literally lower than having no formal education at all.

Finally, if public schools struggle, it is almost always due to a lack of equitable funding and a surplus of impoverished students. It is no accident that poor students receive less resources and larger class sizes than middle class or wealthy ones. Nor is it an accident that we judge the effectiveness of schools primarily on standardized tests which are so good at highlighting the results of lack of resources rather than any academic deficiency.

If we spent our education dollars ensuring equitable resources instead of funneling tax dollars to charter, private and parochial schools, we would better increase the quality of children’s education. But for the last few decades that has not been the goal of education policy. It has instead been to enrich these same privatized school managers and investors – the corporate education reform industry. Nor is it a coincidence that this industry and its subsidiaries counts itself as major donors to both political parties.

Before she was elevated to Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos was exactly that – a billionaire mega-donor pushing school privatization while getting richer off investments in the same. Now that she’s driving school vouchers off a cliff in the Trump train, her co-conspirators are getting nervous.

Neoliberal Democrats may try to save the movement by claiming charter schools are completely different. But they aren’t. They are fundamentally the same.

The public sees the clear similarities between these kinds of schools. And much of that is thanks to the incompetent boobery of Donald J. Trump.

39 thoughts on “Charter Schools and Voucher Schools are Virtually Identical

  1. Many defend charters generally, believing they are all established by parents and teachers and governed by our school board, like those we currently have in our community. Let’s seize the moment to educate parents that what’s coming down the pipe is completely different – commercial charter school chains governed by corporate boards.

    Not to mention, some believe “privatization” sounds great because maybe their kids will be able to attend private schools. We’ve got a long way to go in educating the public.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are right that in many people’s eyes, ‘charter schools’ sound much better than they really are.

      Here in The Netherlands (the country of Betsy DeVos’ ancestors), the people have also been deceived by this privatization policy with the promise of ‘better education for less money’. What we got was the opposite: worse education for MUCH more public money. Still, people are blind & deaf & believe that privatization is inherently good. Even though we now spend twice as much tax money on education, and *no one knows* where these private school boards spend the money on – including the Educ Secretary who is only theoretically responsible..

      So, people are rather stubborn in their political beliefs, even when the facts stare them in the eye. In order to ‘educating the public’, like you propose, about what charter schools *really* are, you need a strong, persistent movement with a strong & clear message, and well-chosen concrete examples of how they do *not* live up to their promise.

      In sum, prepare for a long-lasting, well-coordinated information campaign to make people clear that charter schools do *not* serve the interests of their children, and certainly *not* the interest of their purses. When it comes to the invention of arguments, you can simply stick to the truth.


  2. A question – how do you feel about district schools (like the elite magnets recently profiled in the NY Times – using test scores to screen out all but a few students? Where is your criticism of them?

    Fortunately low-moderate income families all over the country are recognizing the value of public school choice. How sad that the late Dr. Mary Anne Raywid of Hofstra University, a strong ally of public school choice including district and charters (and an opponent of vouchers) has been replaced by someone who refers to those with whom he disagrees as “cockroaches.”

    As an alternative school educator for more than a decade I (and many other alternative school educators and students found Raywid one of the very few college faculty who understood the value of providing options in public education.


    • Joseph, for all you know I think magnet schools are just as bad. This is pure diversion. Besides, I think your criticisms were handily addressed on Diane Ravitch’s page when you voiced the same question. In short, there are several meaningful distinctions between magnet schools and voucher and charter schools. For instance, magnet schools do not compete with local schools – they are part of that district. As such, they are subject to the same accountability and transparency standards as traditional public schools which voucher and charter schools escape. They can choose who to enroll based on certain prerequisites, but this is to better meet the needs of the student. They aren’t cherry picking the best academic students and then declaring victory. The same practice can be found at schools for children with special needs or behavior problems.


      • Steve,

        When you say that magnets “can choose who to enroll based on certain prerequisites… to better meet the needs of the student, ” does this mean you think the neighborhood elementary school can’t meet the meets of students as well as schools that screen out students?” I ask because a central anti-choice argument often posted here is that students’ don’t need options – they just need strong neighborhood schools.

        Second, have you heard from district educators deeply frustrated by magnet schools that operate under different rules? That includes the ability of magnets to screen out students with special needs, or low achievement (as measured by standardized tests? I’ve attended alternative school conferences in more than 20 states (including New York), and I’ve heard this frustration for 3 decades. In

        Magnet schools vary. But In many cases, they receive funds that would go to neighborhood schools if the magnet schools did not exist. One of the criticisms of charters is they take funds away from neighborhood schools. Magnets do that too.

        Are you opposed to allowing families to move to suburbs when the admissions test is the ability to purchase an expensive house and pay high real estate taxes? Wealthy families including some quite close to your campus, have had that option for decades. Are you ok with wealthy families having public options like suburbs, with suburban districts also having the right to keep out low income families who would like their children to attend those schools?

        I’ve spent more than 40 years working to create new options – within districts, and via the charter approach. I think having such options benefits students, families and educators.

        Finally, do you teach your students to refer to people with whom they disagree as cockroaches?


    • Joseph, I have outlined many of the reasons charters and vouchers schools are worse than traditional public schools. Your argument seems to be simply that magnet schools are bad, too. Fine. Write your own article about how terrible magnets are, but it doesn’t affect my argument here. Maybe all public schools except magnets are better than so-called choice schools. However, if you’re trying to argue that magnets are the same as charter and vouchers schools, you’ll have a rough time. They are substantially different in many ways already mentioned. They are not in competition with public districts any more than an advanced class is competing with an academic class. As to “cockroaches,” I think charters and voucher schools are parasites. They feed off the public school system often without providing much value on their own. They hide in the shadows while traditional public schools are compelled to be transparent. I stand by my analogy.


  3. Steve, apparently Rosa Park did not think charters were “parasites.” Kenneth Clark thought it was a good idea to create new public schools outside the control of local school boards.

    If you think magnet schools using admissions tests are a bad idea, why not say so? Or is that not what you mean when you write, “Joseph, for all you know I think magnet schools are just as bad.”

    Again, I’ll ask, do you tell your students that people supporting charters are like cockroaches? What do you ask your students to read in courses where various forms of school choice are discussed?


    • Joseph, you say Rosa Parks was in favor of school choice. And she speaks for all black people? This may come as a shock to you, but like white people, black people have a variety of opinions. They do not all think alike or submit to the opinions of famous black people. Second, your claim that Rosa Parks was in favor of school choice is specious. Yes, her foundation apparently applied to open a charter school in Detroit in the 1990s. It is unclear how much she, herself, was involved in that decision. Moreover, charter schools were basically unknown at the time. Much more information has come to light in the intervening years to show how bad charter schools are as a public school option. That’s why just last year the national NAACP passed a motion calling for a moratorium on charter schools. That has much more weight with me – a national organization with members from around the country representing the needs of people of color voting in the present.

      What do I say to my students about charter schools? Nothing. I don’t teach at the college level. I teach at a public middle school. I never talk about school choice with my students. You work for the Center for School Change. I’m sorry my opinion is insulting to you, but it is your job to undermine mine. You make a living hurting the 85% of American students who attend public school. I take exception to that. If you don’t like my language, fine. But don’t think your tone policing is going to get me to change my mind. People are starting to see through the lies of your industry. And I will do everything I can to make sure that continues. Good day.


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