The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School

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There are good charter schools.


I admit that.


There are bad public schools.


I admit that, too.


But if one had to choose between the worst public school and the best charter school, you’d still be better off with the public school.


Does that sound crazy? Does it sound ideological, partisan, or close-minded.


I don’t think so.


Imagine if we said the same thing about tyrannies and democracies.


There are good tyrannies.


There are bad democracies.


Still, I’d prefer the worst democracy to the best tyranny.




Because even a badly run democracy is based on the principle of self rule. The government gets its right to make and enforce laws from the consent of the will of the governed.


Even if our representatives are corrupt and stupid, even if our federal, state and local agencies are mismanaged and disorganized – there is the potential for positive change.


In fact, the catalyst to that change is embedded in democracy, itself.  Egalitarian systems founded on the principle of one person, one vote tend toward fairness, equity and liberty much more than others.


Bad leaders will be replaced. Bad functionaries will be retrained or superseded. Bad agencies will be renovated, renewed, and made to serve the will of the people.


However, in a tyranny, none of this is true.


Even if you have a benevolent tyrant who does nothing all day but try to do whatever is best for his or her subjects, that is a worse state of affairs.


Eventually the tyrant will change. Absolute power will corrupt him or her absolutely. Or even if this bastion of human goodness is incorruptible, he or she will eventually be deposed, replaced or die.


And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to ensure the next tyrant is likewise benevolent. In fact, the system is set up to increase the likelihood that the next ruler will be as selfish, greedy and malevolent as possible.


This is because it is the system of tyranny, itself, that is corrupt – even if those that fill its offices are not.


The same goes for good charter schools.


These are schools that are publicly funded but privately run.


As such, the overwhelming majority have no elected school board, their meetings are held in private, their documents are kept secret, they discriminate in enrollment and they take advantage of a plethora of legal loopholes and bad policy to embezzle funds, overcharge for nonexistent utilities and cut services for students while pocketing the “savings” as profit.


If you can find a charter school that does none of these things – congratulations! You have found a diamond in the rough! But it is a diamond that is more likely to turn to coal the second you turn away.


Let’s say you find the rare charter school run by an elected school board. THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Organizers could at any time revert to an appointed board. Community members could be making all the decisions when you send your child to school, but by dismissal time they could have all been replaced with flunkies appointed by the private business people who took out the charter from the state in the first place!



Let’s say your charter school has open meetings and public documents. They invite the public to their deliberations. They take public comment and share all their internal communications with taxpayers and the media.  THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. They could close the doors any day they wanted. And there’s nothing you could do about it.



Why? Because that’s what a charter school is. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, it is not fundamentally a public school. It is a private school at public expense.



All these things that are optional at a charter school are required at public schools. Not just some public schools – ALL OF THEM!



Public schools are required to have elected school boards (unless taken over by the state). They are required to have open meetings and public documents. They are essentially democratic, whereas even the best charter schools are only democracies because of someone’s goodwill. When the wind changes, so will their system of government.



But that’ not all.



Let’s say you find a charter school that has open enrollment. It accepts every student who applies from its coverage area. Or at least it does so until it runs out of room. If demand exceeds supply, it conducts a lottery to determine which students to let in and which it has to unfortunately turn away.


First of all, if the school doesn’t have open meetings and public documentation, you have no way of knowing whether these lotteries are fair and unbiased. Operators are often charged with cherry picking the best and brightest and denying students with disabilities or behavioral problems – they’ve even been known to discriminate based on race and class.


Second of all, even if your charter school is one of the magical few that just does the right thing with no oversight, THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Once they figure out how much money they can save by only accepting the cheapest students to educate, inclusive enrollment policies will be a thing of the past. And you’ll probably never even know the difference.


Public schools aren’t allowed to do that. They have to accept every student from their coverage area regardless of academic deficits, emotional needs, race, religion, class or creed. And if there isn’t enough space, they still can’t turn students away. They have to expand!


And what about the most salient feature of charter schools?



Unlike public schools where all the funding has to be spent on student services, most charter schools are run for profit. They are allowed to cut services for students and swipe the savings for their investors.


Some charter schools don’t do this. BUT THEY CAN! Any day now they could cut little Timmy’s gym class down to twice a week so a shady group of business people in a smoke filled room could stuff a bunch of bills in their own wallets.


Offering French AND Spanish? Adios muchachos. And bonjour to a fistful of dollars going directly into their bank accounts.


All of that is perfectly legal even though it’s your money they’re collecting – money you put aside to help your child learn – there’s not a thing you can do about it.


Sure, you can take your child out of the charter school. But the money funding the school isn’t just your child’s. You’re paying for every student enrolled there. Even if you don’t have kids, you’re footing the bill. And unlike the public school system where you get a voice in how that money is spent, here you don’t get to say a thing.


You just get to pay.


Call me crazy, but I think there’s something wrong with that.


I think that’s worse than even the most decrepit public school.


If a public school has a terrible school board, they can be replaced. In fact, they most certainly will be given time. With each bad policy and unpopular decision, bad school directors motivate taxpayers to vote them out.


This is the exact opposite of charter schools. There is more reason for a charter to replace an elected board with an appointed one so as to increase their autonomy and ability to make money.


Most of the problems with public schools aren’t located in the schools, themselves.


They are the result of strategic disinvestment – archaic funding formulas that allocate less to districts without a large tax base than those in richer neighborhoods. They are the result of segregation schemes that keep the poor and minorities in neighborhoods where they can be ignored and then blamed for their own underprivileged status. They are the result of national and state policies allowed to play the parasite on their budgets – high stakes testing, Common Core and – yes – charter schools.


So, no, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be so positive about public schools and so negative about charter schools.


The problem with privatized education isn’t just specific to individual schools. It is a feature of the very kind of school we’re talking about in the first place.


Charter schools are at heart a less democratic system than public schools.


Therefore, public schools are always preferable.


I wouldn’t give up my country just because we have an idiot in the oval office. Nor would I give up my public school just because of inadequacies in my local district.


Democracy isn’t for wimps. You have to fight for it.


Those people who are telling you to switch teams are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.


Don’t fall for it.


Public school proud.







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56 thoughts on “The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School

  1. “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

    And a couple of thousand years of history supports that quote. We can learn from history. Too bad so many people don’t make an effort to learn and keep making the same mistakes.

    Trump, Bill Gates, Moskowitz, DeVose, Rhee, the Koch brothers, and too many others, are all ignorant fools ignoring what history has to teach them as they take their wrecking balls to the world repeating the same mistakes that have happened hundreds if not thousands of times over the millennia.


    • Too true, Lloyd. Democracy is far from perfect. But it’s the best we’ve got. I’ll stick with it until someone comes up with something better. Perhaps a democratic government with a socialist economy.


      • A social democracy: a socialist system of government achieved by democratic means.

        The happiest countries are usually social democracies. The Nordic countries (i.e. Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark), in particular, have their own system of Nordic capitalism, where socialist welfare policies slot, quite effectively, within a capitalist framework.

        A number of Eastern European countries have since followed suit. The Asian Tiger economies (Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore), in addition to Japan, have similarly adopted practices that could be considered social democracy.

        Canada is up there too, but the USA, conspicuously, is not.


        Koch brothers, ALEC, Tea Party People, Walmart Walton Family, et al.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve,
    If you’re saying that there is fraud in education, and that there are sometimes bad people in positions of authority you’ll get no argument from me, but it cuts a wide swath across traditional public, public charters, and private schools. Just a couple of months ago the Superintendent of the Shakopee school district, a large suburban district south of Minneapolis was charged with embezzlement. In the case of the Oh Day Aki charter school it was under contract with Minneapolis Public Schools, and MPS was responsible for oversight.

    Much of your article against charter schools centers around school boards, and while I agree with you that in most states the school board process is not good, in Minnesota charter boards are elected and voted on by its members, this is in state statute. In the majority of MN charters the board is made up of a majority of licensed teachers, then parents and community members – putting control in the hands of the people actually invested in the school.

    You also mention that charter schools are not REQUIRED to have oversight, and this is not true Minnesota. The process is not perfect, and again bad people will always find ways to take advantage, but this is across all forms of schooling. MN charter schools are required to conduct annual audits and to make the findings public. Charter school authorizers are also required to conduct yearly reviews plus much more extensive reviews at contract renewal every five years.

    As indicated in the attachment I shared with you charter schools in Minnesota are also required to have non-profit status. There is no profit made in charter schools in MN, in fact charters receive less per pupil than their traditional counterparts.

    Steve, I am a strong supporter of public schools, both traditional and charter. I have worked in both and served on the school boards of both. I have also seen the good, the bad and the ugly of both traditional and charter schools. I know from experience that charter schools fill an unmeet need for many students and parents that they couldn’t find in their traditional school. There are a lot of students and parents who would strongly disagree with you when you say that the public charter school that made a difference in their lives doesn’t hold a candle to the traditional public school that they originally attended.


    • Peter, I am not expecting everyone to agree with me. That will never happen no matter what I say. This is my opinion backed up with facts. MN passed the first charter school law in 1991 and the first charter was opened in St Paul in 1992. It makes sense that the state would have more thoughtful charter laws since you have the longest history with these types of schools. However, these sorts of scandals I’ve highlighted are because of lack of oversight. I’m surprised you can’t see that. I’m not going to go into each one and prosecute the cases one-by-one. But you are wrong to say MN charter schools have all the amenities of public schools. If they did, they wouldn’t be charter schools. They would be public schools. I fundamentally disagree with the assertion that charter schools are public. Yes, they are funded with taxpayer money. But that is where the similarity ends.


      • The vast majority of charter schools in Wisconsin are also run by public school boards. All charter schools in Virginia and Kansas are run by public school boards. State law varies so much that it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations about charter schools.


      • Once again we have Teaching Economist to spread rumors and propaganda. Sir, you say – without any evidence – that charters in certain states have (elected?) school boards. Okay. Let’s say you’re right. So what? They don’t have to do that. They could take away those elected boards tomorrow. We deserve schools that are REQUIRED to listen to the voters and taxpayers – not just those that do it today out of the goodness of their hearts. I say again – I’ll take imperfect democracy over perfect tyranny any day.


    • Rumors and propaganda? Actually state law.

      Yes, the state could take away local control of charter schools in those states, but of course it could take it away for traditional schools tomorrow as well. What exactly is your point?


      • See? THAT’s propaganda. Traditional public schools cannot lose their elected boards unless taken over by the state. There are a very limited set of circumstances in which that can happen. And even if it does, it must be only temporary. However, at charter schools this can happen at any time for whatever reason and they usually don’t even have to explain the change to voters and taxpayers.


  3. You are wrong. First of all, there is a public school in Mesa where parents would camp over night to get their kid in it. Since so many wanted their kids in that school, they expanded to 4 schools. If a charter school has more kids who want to attend, they will expand their school. If a charter school continue to having to expand, you know it is a good school just like the public school I mentioned. Btw, the public school I mentioned, teaches at a higher level then a regular public school. Some children can not keep up and the school suggest putting their child in another school.
    Most of the charter schools ut perform public schools. If they do not, they end up closing because parents do not want to put their child in a low performing school. Fortunately in Arizona, parents are able to put their child in a school outside their district. One charter school in Arizona is a on line school where 13 and 14 yr. olds are graduating h.s. And going onto college another charter school has their campuses at Ommunity colleges so by the time the kid graduate from h.s., they also have an associates degree.
    “Best High Schools in the U.S.” Arizona charter schools own the list.


  4. You need to be more precise and specific. Your enjoyable and justified rant applies to *independent* charter schools. There’s a whole bunch of amazing schools that are run as affiliated charters, i.e. under school district supervision but with added community participation through an elected and transparent Brown Act adhering board. We’re also called charters but with all the good stuff of public schools and none of the bad stuff of independent charters, and we’d like to keep our brand intact and not thrown in with the independents.


    • Oliver, thanks for the comment, but I fundamentally disagree with you. I know some folks in the school privatization industry are trying to distinguish themselves from the worst grifters in the field who every day hurt kids educations and steal from taxpayers. But the problem isn’t limited to the worst practitioners. The problem is the charter school model, itself. We give you extra freedoms that traditional public schools do not enjoy. If those freedoms help, we should extend them to all public schools. If they endanger educational outcomes and self-rule, we should not allow them. If your school allows taxpayers an elected school board, great! But it doesn’t have to. You could take it back any day. Call me crazy, but I think our kids and taxpayers deserve schools that are REQUIRED to listen to their concerns – not just schools that do so out of good will. Imperfect democracy is always better than perfect tyranny.


  5. I do not know about other states but in MN elected school boards are required for charter schools in state statute, and in WI the vast majority of charter schools are the instrumentalities of their home districts, they have governance boards made up of community members, but they still report to the locally elected school board.


    • From your link:

      “Subd. 4. Board structure.

      Board bylaws shall outline the process and procedures for changing the board’s governance structure, consistent with chapter 317A. A board may change its governance structure only:

      (1) by a majority vote of the board of directors and a majority vote of the licensed teachers employed by the school as teachers, including licensed teachers providing instruction under a contract between the school and a cooperative; and

      (2) with the authorizer’s approval.”


  6. […] Public schools provide a better alternative because the funding must be dedicated to the student, living within a district’s coverage area guarantees enrollment, the school must be managed by an elected school board with open meetings and a plethora of other amenities you won’t find at a privatized institution. But at least the charter school is a school! […]


  7. […] The charter schools that claim to be the most “public” still have secrets; policies, practices, and long term goals conceived and held behind closed doors. The schemers control the surface narrative as well as the hidden narrative. What allows schemers to have such unbridled influence is the regulatory policies (or lack thereof) written into charter school laws. As Steven Singer has shown, “The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School.” […]


  8. […] Stop kidding yourself. Charter schools are a bad deal. It doesn’t matter if they’re for-profit or nonprofit. It doesn’t matter if they’re cyber or brick-and-mortar institutions. It doesn’t matter if they have a history of scandal or success. Every single charter school in the United States of America is either a disaster or a disaster waiting to happen. […]


  9. […] Want to grab a handful of cash and put it in your briefcase, stuff it down your pants, hide it in your shoes? Go right ahead! It’s not like anyone’s actually looking over your shoulder. It’s not like your documents are routinely audited or you have to explain yourself at monthly school board meetings – all of which authentic public schools like mine have to do or else. […]


  10. […] Want to grab a handful of cash and put it in your briefcase, stuff it down your pants, hide it in your shoes? Go right ahead! It’s not like anyone’s actually looking over your shoulder. It’s not like your documents are routinely audited or you have to explain yourself at monthly school board meetings – all of which authentic public schools like mine have to do or else. […]


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