America has been fooled by the charter school industry for too long.
The popular myth that charter schools were invented by unions to empower teachers and communities so that students would have better options is as phony as a three dollar bill.
The concept always was about privatizing schools to make money.
It has always been about stealing control of public education, enacting corporate welfare, engaging in union busting, and an abiding belief that the free hand of the market can do no wrong.
Charter schools are, after all, institutions run privately but paid for with tax dollars. So operators can make all decisions behind closed doors without public input or accountability. They can cut student services and pocket the difference. And they can enroll whoever the heck they want without providing the same level of education or programs you routinely get at your neighborhood public school.
In essence, charter schools are a scheme to eliminate the public from public education paid for at public expense.
But whenever anyone brings up these facts, they are confronted by the bedtime story of Albert Shanker and his alleged advocacy of the industry.
So grab your teddy bear and put on your jammies, because here’s how it goes:
Once upon a time, hero president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Al Shanker had an idea. He wanted to make laboratory schools where educators would be freed of regulations so they could experiment and find new pedagogies that worked. Then these innovations could spread to the rest of the school system.
One day in 1988, he gave a speech at the National Press Club and subsequently published a column in the New York Times advancing this idea.
And he called it – Dum, Dum, DUM! – charter schools!
The second act of the story opens in the mid-1990s when Shanker had largely turned against the idea after it had been co-opted by business interests.
He dreamed of places where unionized teachers would work with union representatives on charter authorizing boards, and all charter proposals would include plans for “faculty decision-making.” But instead he got for-profit monstrosities that didn’t empower workers but busted their unions.
If only we’d stuck with Shanker’s bold dream!
Or at least, that’s how the story goes.
Unfortunately it’s just a story.
It’s not true. Hardly a word of it.
Shanker did not come up with the idea of charter schools. He wasn’t part of the plan to popularize them. He didn’t even come up with the term “charter school.”
If anything, he was a useful patsy in this stratagem who worked tirelessly to give teachers unions a seat at the table where he then discovered they were also on the menu.
The real origin of charter schools goes back decades to at least the 1950s and the far right push for deregulation.
When the afterglow of the atomic bomb and the allied victory in Europe had faded, there was political backlash at home to roll back the amazing economic successes of the New Deal. Social security, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, a minimum wage, job programs that put millions of people to work – all of that had to go in favor of right wing ideology.
A cabal of mostly wealthy, privileged elites wanted to do away with these policies in the name of the prosperity it would bring to themselves and their kind. They claimed it would be for the good of everyone but it was really just about enriching the already rich who felt entitled to all economic goods and that everyone else should have to fight over the crumbs.
Never mind that it was just such thinking that burst economic bubbles causing calamities like the Great Depression in the first place and made the conditions ripe for two world wars.
Show me the money!
However, this really didn’t go anywhere until it was combined with that most American of institutions – racism.
Even before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision struck down school segregation, many white people said they’d never allow their children to go to school with black children.
In the South, several districts tried “freedom of choice” plans to allow white kids to transfer out of desegregated schools.
In 1952 and ’57, governments in two states – Georgia and Virginia – tried out what became known as the “private school plan.” Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge and community leaders in Prince Edward County, Virginia, tried to privatize public schools to avoid any federal desegregation requirements. Each student would be given a voucher to go to whatever school would enroll them – segregated by race.
The plan was never implemented in Georgia and struck down by the federal government in Virginia after only one year as a misuse of taxpayer funds.
But these failed plans got the attention of one of the leading deregulation champions, economist Milton Friedman.
He sided with the segregationists citing their prejudice and racism as merely “market forces.”
In his seminal 1955 tract, “The Role of Government in Education,” he wrote:
“So long as the schools are publicly operated, the only choice is between forced nonsegregation and forced segregation; and if I must choose between these evils, I would choose the former as the lesser. Privately conducted schools can resolve the dilemma … Under such a system, there can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.”
Throughout the 1970s, school voucher proposals were widely understood as a means to preserve school segregation, according to education historian Diane Ravitch. But they couldn’t gain any traction until privatizers came up with a new wrinkle in the formula – the charter school.
Charter schools are really just school vouchers with more money and regulations.
In the case of vouchers, we use tax dollars to pay for a portion of student enrollment at private and parochial schools. In the case of charters, we use tax dollars to pay for all of a student’s enrollment at a school that is privately managed. The only difference is how much taxpayer money we give to these privatized schools and how much leeway we give them in terms of pedagogy.
Charter schools can do almost whatever they want but they can’t blatantly teach religion. Voucher schools can.
Other than that, they’re almost the same thing.
In order to get the public to support school privatization, Friedman thought we’d need to convince them that they didn’t need the burden of self-government. This was especially true of minorities.
In his 1981 book Free to Choose, Friedman and his wife Rose suggested the necessity of convincing black voters that they didn’t need Democracy. School privatization could be pitched as a system that would “free the black man from dominion by his own political leaders.”
The opportune moment came in 1983 with the publication of the Reagan administration’s propaganda piece A Nation at Risk. Using bogus statistics and outright lies, the report painted our public school system as a failure and set up the false urgency that school deregulationists needed.
From this point forward, a series of supply side lawmakers, policy wonks, economists, billionaires and CEOs came out of the woodwork to push for school privatization which culminated in the first charter school law in 1991 in Minnesota.
In the middle of all this tumult came Shanker’s National Press Club speech in 1988.
Ronald Reagan was still in office and it’s hard to overstate the threat he posed to unions having infamously fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.
Shanker was trying to ride the tide of public opinion in favor of deregulation and privatization. He accepted the bogus criticisms of schools in A Nation At Risk and offered to restructure schools to fix the problem. Like so many union leaders after him, Shanker gave away much of the power of his people-driven movement so as not to come across as obstructionist. He didn’t think teachers unions could oppose the rising tide of privatization without offering innovations of their own.
It’s true that he called these reforms “charter schools” but he didn’t invent the term. He borrowed it from a little-known Massachusetts educator, Ray Budde, who meant by it something very different from what it has become. Budde thought school boards could offer “charters” directly to teachers allowing them to create new programs or departments.
Shanker’s proposal wasn’t nearly the first time a public figure had suggested restructuring public schools.
In the late 1960s after helping provide justification for school desegregation, sociologist Kenneth Clark advocated for alternative school systems that could be run by groups as diverse as universities to the Department of Defense.
Shanker’s contribution was not nearly as powerful as subsequent apologists have claimed. He was one voice among many. Though his comments were useful to the deregulators, they ignored everything of substance he had said beyond the myth that he supported their efforts at school privatization.
According to journalist Rachel Cohen, the true architect of the charter school concept as it appears today wasn’t Shanker, Budde or Clark. It was Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” Ted Kolderie.
He was at the heart of the issue pushing for school privatization from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Throughout the 1970s, Kolderie lobbied for a plethora of ways for private industry to provide government services – including education – through an initiative known as Public Service Options (PSO). By 1981, the focus narrowed almost exclusively to education.
In several reports, he blamed the bogus failure of public schools on the democracy of the school boards. Though he didn’t use the term “charter school,” his conception was essentially the same as the modern charter school: independent schools accountable only through market forces and a set of contractual obligations. He thought they could be run by almost anyone – universities, corporations, nonprofits— even public school districts – if state law could be amended to allow it.
That’s pretty much a charter school – a privately run learning institution that’s publicly financed.
Why doesn’t Kolderie get the credit? Why the emphasis on Shanker who had very little to do with what ultimately became law?
Because Kolderie and others wanted to hide behind the union. They wanted their policy to have a friendlier public image than that of a shadowy puppet master.
Shanker walked right into their trap.
He even agreed to give another speech in favor of charter schools in October 1988 at the Minneapolis Foundation’s annual Itasca Seminar for political and business leaders.
With continued lobbying from the corporate sector and right wing ideologues, three years later the state was the first to pass a charter school law.
And the die was cast.
Sure charter school cheerleaders like to give Shanker the credit today, but the legislation that was eventually passed and funneled to other states through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had little resemblance to anything Shanker said.
It was the deregulation and privatization model first conceived in the 1950s, funneled through Friedman and now Kolderie.
And make no mistake – the overall plot wasn’t simply to enact charter schools. That was merely the foothold that enabled subsequent school voucher bills and tax scholarship plans (vouchers lite). The end game was made clear by Friedman time and again – the complete destruction of public schools.
While speaking to rightwing lawmakers at a 2006 ALEC meeting, Friedman explained that school privatization was always about “abolishing the public school system.”
Here is an excerpt from Friedman’s ALEC speech:
“How do we get from where we are to where we want to be—to a system in which parents control the education of their children? Of course, the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it. Then parents would have enough money to pay for private schools, but you’re not gonna do that. So you have to ask, what are politically feasible ways of solving the problem. The answer, in my opinion, is choice…”
When Minnesota proposed the first charter school law, the state teachers union fought against it. But tellingly Shanker refused to speak out during legislative debates.
And this was due in part to the rise of the neoliberals.
School privatization was the brainchild of the far right. But as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, so dawned a new type of political figure – the social progressive with distinctly right wing economic views.
In 1989 when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) named Bill Clinton as chairman, it also founded its own think tank—the Progressive Policy Institute. Kolderie worked closely with the DLC and even wrote its first policy paper on school privatization.
Clinton was an immediate convert, embracing Kolderie’s proposals as he traveled around the country making speeches even though he knew it was unpopular with teachers unions. Clinton ruffled so many feathers that Shanker, himself, commented, “It is almost impossible for us to get President Clinton to stop endorsing [charters] in all his speeches.”
Though the first charter school law came a year later, in 1990 Wisconsin passed the first school voucher program. Since it was pushed through with mostly Republican support, this provided cover for neoliberal charter supporters. Though there was little difference between the two policies, neoliberals could distinguish themselves by criticizing school vouchers while endorsing their ideological cousins the charter schools.
So we had the two major political parties both supporting different flavors of the same school privatization.
It allowed Democrats to stop supporting more funding for social programs and schools while weakening the main driver of such policies – labor unions. This allowed the neoliberals to be economically as conservative as their “adversaries” across the aisle while publicly pretending to support progressivism.
Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students.
This does not now – and never did – represent any ideal offered by Shanker or unions.
His dream of teacher-run schools as laboratories of innovation may or may not have merit, but not at the expense of making different rules for different schools. Where regulation is important, it is important for all schools. Where it is too restrictive, all schools should be freed from its requirements. All teachers should be allowed to innovate and take a leadership role in their schools.
When Shanker spoke about “charter schools,” he was not a visionary. He was leading us down a dead end. He was foolishly offering an olive branch to an inferno. That doesn’t mean he started the blaze or even that it was his idea.
Yet even now you can read propaganda that says otherwise on the AFT’s own Website – “Restoring Shanker’s Vision for Charter Schools” by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. It’s funny how Potter, a former charter school teacher, and Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation – which loves charter schools – both want to keep the happy face on an ugly idea. And sad that one of the largest teachers unions can’t face up to one of its heroes biggest mistakes.
If charter schools have a face, it should be Kolderie’s or Friedman’s – or perhaps it should be the industry’s most famous modern champion Betsy Devos.
Charter schools are no progressive dream.
They are the corporate paradise of spending tax dollars with zero accountability, zero transparency and as much deregulation as possible. They are the continued destabilization of public education in the knowledge that the edifice cannot stand without support indefinitely.
Public education will crumble and fall just as the architects of school privatization always knew it would.
Unless we take a stand and take back our power.
To do that we need to understand where charter and voucher schools came from and who is responsible.
Charter schools do NOT represent a good idea that was perverted by the corporate world. It is an essentially bad policy that should be abolished immediately.
NOTE: This article owes a debt to the reporting of Rachel Cohen.
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