Go to most impoverished black neighborhoods and you’re bound to find three things in abundance.
Liquor stores, payday lenders and charter schools.
It is no accident.
In the inner city, the underemployed compete for a shortage of minimum wage jobs, healthcare is minimal, public transportation inadequate and the schools are underfunded and short staffed.
But that doesn’t mean money isn’t being made.
In capitalist America, we make sure to turn a profit off of everything – including our peculiar institutions of racial inequality.
Businesses are on every corner, but they aren’t set up for the convenience of those living there.
Ethnic isolation – whether caused by poverty, legal coercion, safety in numbers or white flight – often puts the segregated at a disadvantage. It creates a quarantined economy set up for profiteers and carpetbaggers to get rich off the misery of the poor.
The system is set up to wring as much blood as it can from people forced to live as stones.
Families struggle to survive in a community where they are exploited by grasping landlords and greedy grocers. And the system is kept in check by law enforcement officers who are either disposed to turn the other way or so overzealous as to shoot first and ask questions later.
As W.E.B. DuBois described it nearly a century ago, “Murder sat on our doorstep, police were our government, and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice.”
The economy is glutted with enterprises offering cheap promises of relief but which actually reinforce the status quo.
Predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods are eight times more likely to have carry-out liquor stores than white or racially integrated neighborhoods, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
Yet in higher income black neighborhoods in the same cities, you don’t find these same liquor stores.
They are established in the poorest neighborhoods to offer cheap, temporary respite from the trauma of living in poverty. Yet they increase the likelihood of alcoholism, addiction and violence.
The same goes for payday lenders.
These are basically legal loan sharks who offer ready cash at exorbitant interest rates. Typically these payday loans are meant to last the length between paychecks – approximately two weeks. However, they come with extremely high interest rates. For instance, the average $375 loan ends up costing $520 (139%) in interest.
These businesses aren’t located in the suburbs or wealthy parts of town. You find them typically in the inner cities and poor black neighborhoods. They promise temporary help with one-time purchases and unexpected expenses, but in truth most are used to pay for necessities like rent or food.
They end up trapping users in a debt spiral where they have to take out payday loans to pay off previous payday loans. This is mostly because these loans are made based on the lender’s ability to collect, not the borrower’s ability to repay while meeting other financial obligations.
And these are just two of the most common features of this predatory economy – capitalist enterprises designed to enrich businesses for exploiting consumers beyond their ability to cope.
Others include high priced but limited stock grocery markets, fast food restaurants, gun stores, inner city rental properties and charter schools.
That last one may seem out of place.
Most descriptions of urban neighborhoods neglect to mention charter schools, but in the last few decades they have become an increasingly common part of the landscape. And this is no wonder. They fit the same pattern of exploitation as the other establishments mentioned above.
Think about it: (1) charter schools disproportionately locate in poor black communities, (2) offer the promise of relief from inequality but end up recreating or worsening the same unjust circumstances and (3) they are often owned by rich white folks from outside the neighborhood who profit off the venture.
Who attends charter schools and where are they located?
The charter sector represents only a tiny fraction of students attending public school.
Of the 50.4 million students in the public school system in 2015, only about 3.2 million students were enrolled in roughly 7,000 privately-operated charter schools across the country.
To put that in context, that means just a little more than 6% of all public school students are enrolled in charter schools.
According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 26% of all charter school students are black (832,000) compared with 33% of Hispanics (1,056,000) and 32% of whites (1,024,000).
This doesn’t come close to a majority for any racial group. Consider the fact that authentic public schools enroll approximately:
•7 million black students (14% of the total)
•12 million Hispanic students (24% of the total)
•24 million white students (48% of the total)
More students of all ethnicities attend authentic public schools than charter schools – by orders of magnitude. However, those that are enrolled at charter schools are not distributed evenly. Charter schools do educate a disproportionate percentage of students of color – especially among Hispanic students.
Why? Do black and brown families seek them out or is it just the opposite – charters seek out melanin abundant children.
Approximately 57% of charter schools are located in cities, according to 2017 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s comparable with only 25% of authentic public schools.
So like liquor stores and payday lenders, charter schools are disproportionately located in highly segregated, urban communities often with a majority black and Hispanic population. And since they are businesses (unlike their authentic public school counterparts), they literally target this demographic because it fits their profit model.
These are the people they think they can sell on the charter model. And they often do.
How do charter schools disadvantage the students enrolled there?
Like other vulture capitalist enterprises, they exploit the students they purport to serve by convincing people of color to accept fewer services than they already get at authentic public schools.
Authentic public schools invariably are run by school directors elected from the community who have to make all possible decisions in public and present their records for review.
Charter schools are permitted to run without elected school boards. Decisions are often made by appointed bureaucrats behind closed doors. They are not required to hold public meetings or present school documents as public records. Parents have no way of having their voices heard except that they can take it or leave it.
Authentic public schools have to use all their funding for the benefit of the students.
Charter schools can cut student services and pocket the savings. This is true regardless of whether they are designated for-profit or non-profit. It’s just a matter of which loopholes you have to go through. In both circumstances there are ways for the business people running charter schools to make financial gains at the expense of the community and its children. And the result is larger class sizes, narrower curriculum, fewer field trips and extra-curricular activities – but also larger salaries and perks for administrators and investors.
Authentic public schools have to accept all students who live within their boundaries.
Charter schools are not required to accept all students who live in their coverage areas or even all who apply for enrollment. They can and often do cherry pick the easiest students to educate. The can dissuade special needs students or students with less stable families from applying by forgoing special services and/or requiring prerequisites like costly uniforms and parental voluntarism. Or they can simply choose whomever they wish from the applicant pool and claim the decision was based on a lottery that never needs to be audited for fairness.
Despite a lack of adequate funding and an abundance of high needs students, authentic public schools provide the best academic outcomes possible given their limitations.
Despite having every advantage, charter schools get the same or worse academic outcomes as authentic public schools.
Charters market themselves as providing a superior education, but this is not supported by the facts.
Nearly every study conducted on the matter has found that charter schools do NOT outperform authentic public schools. In fact, many charters get much worse results – especially cyber charter schools.
Moreover, according to the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), authentic public school students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades outperform charter school students in math, reading and science. In addition, no other high performing nation even has charter schools.
But that’s just academics. There are even clearer economic indications of how charter schools squander the tax dollars that fund them while authentic public schools are more stable and provide better value for the money.
Authentic public schools don’t have nearly the same amount or degree of financial scandals because they are required to be much more transparent and their budgets are subject to frequent audits. By contrast, in many cases charter schools take public tax dollars and provide literally nothing in return.
According to a 2015 report by Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, dozens of charter schools that have accepted federal funding closed without even opening in the first place! The federal government has spent $3.7 billion to boost the charter sector only to have these “ghost schools” pop up and spirit away our tax dollars.
•In 2011 and 2012, the federal government gave $3.7 million in taxpayer dollars to 25 Michigan “ghost” schools that never even opened to students.
•In California, more than $4.7 million in federal taxpayer money was handed out to create charter schools that subsequently closed within a few years.
•In Ohio, out of the 88 schools created by planning and implementation grants under the federal “Charter School Program” (CSP) for state education agencies between 2008 and 2013, at least 15 closed within a few years; a further seven schools never even opened. These charters received more than $4 million in federal taxpayer dollars.
There is even more evidence that charter schools are not nearly as stable as authentic public schools.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in ten charter schools have closed over a three year period. That’s more than 765 charter schools that have been shuttered between 2014-15 and 2016-17.
This leaves thousands of families scrambling to find an education for their children.
Such scandals simply do not happen at authentic public schools.
So charter schools provide fewer services, worse results, and a greater chance of closure or wasting limited funding without even opening at all – not a good return on investment for students of color.
And who owns and operates these charter schools?
There has been very little research on this topic.
The most detailed information I could find comes from the charter school industry, itself, specifically the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a nonprofit that describes itself as “committed to advancing the public charter school movement.”
According to the NAPCS, about one-third of charter schools in 2016-17 were operated by management organizations that run multiple schools. This includes KIPP, Success Academy, Green Dot Charter Schools, Uncommon Schools and Rocketship Charter Schools.
The remainder (57%) are owned by what they call freestanding charter schools – which just means organizations that run only one school.
These institutions can be run by a wide range of groups including religious organizations and local business organizations such as chambers of commerce or economic development authorities.
While it’s true that community groups also sometimes run charter schools, they are invariably funded by huge foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, or the Walton Family Fund – all of whom profit off the industry.
Are these community groups authentic representations of an abiding belief in the power of school privatization to achieve equity or are they mere fronts for the big money behind them? Even when individuals approach the matter with an open mind, is it fair to say they’ve independently reached a decision when there is a huge paycheck from a prestigious name behind one option and nothing but logic and history behind the other? Billionaires are literally paying you to favor solutions that help their bottom line. Is it any wonder some folks can’t see past all that green?
Even with a lack of good data, it seems clear that the overwhelming majority of the industry is owned, operated and/or supported by rich white people from outside of the black and Hispanic community.
Charter schools are not a grassroots response to the problems of educating the urban poor.
They are a kind of “false consciousness,” an extension of the segregation economy exploiting black and brown children.
They are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods because operators think they can sell their educational model to people of color fed up with the inequality of their neighborhoods.
Yet they provide fewer services at greater cost to black communities – they convince impoverished minorities to give up the few educational guarantees they already have in favor of a worse situation. And the result is a continuation or worsening of the status quo while enriching vulture capitalists.
It’s a scam, a flimflam ripoff, a bamboozling hoax.
Like the liquor stores and payday lenders that dot the inner city landscape, charter schools are yet another way to exploit black people for the crime of putting their faith once again in capitalism to break their chains.
We need to tear down the systems of inequality that privilege some at the expense of others – and doing that requires a robust system of public education for all.
It is not only a prerequisite for social justice but it is one of the central facets of the fight, itself.
You can’t use capitalism – a system that relies on inequality – as a method to assure equity.
Justice requires fairness. And the road to fairness can only be discerned by enlightenment.
Education is both the path and the goal.
It’s passed time we stop exploiting those who wish to walk that path by convincing them to go another way.
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