In the United States, colonialism isn’t just something we do to other people – we do it to our own citizens.
A prime example of this is the charter school industry.
Now that the UK’s longest-reigning monarch has died, perhaps we can admit that.
To many people, Queen Elizabeth II is more than just a 70-year figure head – she remains a symbol of the British colonial empire — an institution that enriched itself through violence, theft and oppression.
But one needn’t look solely at European nations pillaging Africa and Asia to condemn the practice.
Nor should we limit ourselves to United States’ hegemony in the Caribbean, Pacific and Middle East.
We’ve got colonialism right here – down the street, in our own neighborhoods.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, colonialism is:
“the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.”
That’s a pretty good description of the relationship between charter schools and the communities where they insert themselves.
Consider what a charter school does.
It is a school funded by taxpayer dollars but free from regulations protecting the people it supposedly serves.
This is fundamentally different from authentic public schools which are funded in the same way but subject to the leadership of an elected board of directors made up of members of the community. At charter schools, decisions can be made entirely by an appointed board who are not beholden to the public but to the organizers and investors who created the charter school in the first place.
And often those investors do not come from the community in question. They are outsiders come merely for personal profit.
These invaders are quite literally taking local, community resources and liquidating them for their own use – the maximization of personal profit. The public is removed from the decision-making process about how its own resources are utilized and/or spent.
To be fair, a charter school cannot exist in a community unless its operators can convince enough parents to enroll their children. However, no one needs to invite the charter school into the community in the first place.
Like with any business, these entrepreneurs can decide to set up shop pretty much anywhere, and though local public schools are tasked with approving or disapproving their request to locate within district boundaries, most state charter school laws provide very few resources to authentic public schools to turn charter schools away. Moreover, when charter applications are denied, the community that turned them away are often overruled by unelected privatization-friendly functionaries in state government.
Think about what a transformation has been thus accomplished.
Stakeholders such as students, families, teachers, and communities become merely economic resources ripe for hegemony – not free people with the right to control their own destinies.
After all, just because a small number of parents have decided to enroll their kids at a charter school, that doesn’t mean the community at large – which is far more numerous and will have to fund this endeavor – supports it. Moreover, the money taxpayers are expected to offload on the charter school come from their existent public schools – and the slight reduction in students does not equal a proportionate reduction in cost. Most expenses are fixed regardless of enrollment. You still have to heat and cool the building, staff the classes, etc. So the community has to decide whether to shortchange the majority of children who continue to be enrolled at the authentic public school or (as often is the case) pay more in taxes to make up the difference.
In this context, the colonizers aren’t foreign governments but hedge fund managers and other investors who treat the charter school in the same manner as real estate or stocks, playing a gambler’s game of speculation while local taxpayers are left with the tab and the lion’s share of risk. After all, if the speculators lose, they are out a certain dollar amount. If the charter school fails, the community loses a quality education for its children. Moreover, money that should have been spent according to community needs and priorities—hiring school nurses, keeping music programs, reductions in class size, etc. – is wasted.
Make no mistake – this is theft. It is pillaging and looting a community. The citizens lose their right to self government, how their land is used and how their resources are utilized. They become enslaved to the so-called free market.
Perhaps the most pernicious effect is the change in attitude, as Ohio social studies teacher Dr. Chuck Greanoff writes:
“Our minds are targets of colonization, the goal being the replacement of any sense of a common good and shared responsibly with the neoliberal axiom that economic self-interest is the only right and natural course of action. You are to think like consumers, not citizens. You are to shop for the best schools for your student, not invest your time and effort in improving them for everyone.”
Others have gone even farther finding racism in the daily administration of charter schools, themselves. After all, many charter schools locate themselves around inner city black communities and therefore exploit the children of color they find there.
Colonialism is often white Europeans acting on brown indigenous people. The colonizers are going to “raise those savages up” or in the words of noted imperialist Rudyard Kipling, ease the “white man’s burden.”
Walsh notes that we see the same apparent motivation among charter school operators with regard to the often black and brown children enrolled in their schools. They use militaristic, highly autocratic systems of discipline to keep these children in-line.
“The children of the inner city are being treated by their “benefactors” as inferiors. Charter schools are colonial enterprises.”
However, the most damning testimony comes from Julian Vasquez Heilig’s Cloaking Inequality blog. He published a guest piece written by a former New Orleans charter school dean of students decrying just such colonial practices.
“…while working as the Dean of Students for a charter school in New Orleans, it took me some time to realize that I had been enforcing rules and policies that stymied creativity, culture and student voice…
My daily routine consisted of running around chasing young Black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they added a different color streak to their hair, or following young men to make sure that their hair wasn’t styled naturally as students were not able to wear their hair in uncombed afro styles. None of which had anything to do with teaching and learning, but administration was keen on making sure that before Black students entered the classroom that they looked “appropriate” for learning. As if students whose hair was natural or those whose parents could not afford a uniform tie could not achieve like others who possessed these items…
…everything at the school was done in a militaristic/prison fashion. Students had to walk in lines everywhere they went, including to class and the cafeteria. The behavioral norms and expectations called for all students to stand in unison with their hands to their sides, facing forward, silent until given further instruction.”
Students should not be treated like prisoners. Children should not be forced to comply with such harsh rules of conduct. And no one should be compelled to give up their cultural heritage for any reason – but especially because those in charge don’t value them as human beings.
It’s way past time we admit it.
This is colonialism.
Charter schools are colonial enterprises.
We can and should criticize the UK for its history of violence and oppression. We can and should include many US international policies in the same condemnation.
But we mustn’t stop there.
Colonialism is on our streets and in our schools.
We have been colonized by the rich and powerful and our children of color have received the worst of it.
We must end the charter school experiment.
We must end the neighborhood colonialism that too few are willing to call by its rightful name.
–Fisher, David R. Education in the Settler Colony: Displacement, Inequality, and Disappearance via Charter Schools. University of South Florida ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2019. 27548561.
-Vasquez Heilig, J., Khalifa, M., & Tillman, L. (2013). Why have NCLB and high-stakes reforms failed?: Reframing the discourse with a post-colonial lens. In K. Lomotey and R. Milner (Eds.), Handbook of Urban Education. New York: Routledge.
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