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Est. April 5, 2002
November 16, 2017 - Issue 718

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Whose School Choice
in the
Era of Assignments
Charter Schools?

"The Cartel’s most recent success has
derived from its funding of state legislators
to create a feeder system for corporate
charter schools. Laws have been passed
that establish so-called Achievement,
Innovation, Renaissance, etc.
districts in several states."

School Choice is the mantra for public education advanced by the Cartel of corporate education reformers. Since the1990s, it has been purported to be the elixir for low-income students’ of color academic achievement, poverty, brushes with the law, college attendance, and a host of other challenges faced by urban school students. In all instances, it is claimed that parents are best able to choose where their children go to school and that school choice allows them to do so. Yet when we carefully analyze this assertion, we find that parents have limited input in this transformation of public education as to how we educate America’s children. The education reform Cartel has spent billions of dollars in marketing the choice agenda to parents and the general citizenry and is currently making major inroads.

Radio and TV ads have been run alleging that contemporary urban poor students of color are imprisoned in underperforming schools, that traditional public school teachers are overpaid, that teacher unions only care about their members, and that school district central office administrators are overpaid and overstaffed. Professional school choice proponents are constantly funding school choice start-ups, especially those associated with charter schools. They have been conspiring behind the scenes for decades to advocate for the privatization of public education. Although a consistent, significant majority of Americans are satisfied with their children’s education in public schools, business and meritocratic elites have aggressively promoted charter schools as an antidote to the supposed failure of K-12 public education.

But the Cartel’s most recent success has derived from its funding of state legislators to create a feeder system for corporate charter schools. Laws have been passed that establish so-called Achievement, Innovation, Renaissance, etc. districts in several states. The process involves the following: the lowest-performing schools in a state are removed from local district authority and placed in a state-run district, which is then turned over to corporate charter-school operators who are given the flexibility to make significant staffing and leadership changes, reflective of ideas on school governance in which parents and the general public have no input. Thus, this reform cannot be labeled as giving parents of students in those schools a choice of the school their children attend. Moreover, teachers’ union contracts are invalidated, providing the corporate charter companies the opportunity to have a contingent/at-will workforce. However, what is most disconcerting about this legislation is that it permits states to add other low-performing schools to these new districts on an annual basis. And these corporate charter contractors with states are now pushing to hire teachers who do not hold the educational credentials or certifications required of public school teachers and administrators; this proposal is gaining traction in numerous states. This has long been a staple of voucher schools where educational qualifications have been low or non-existent.

For example, during the first fifteen years of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) for publicly-funded private school vouchers, several teachers did not have high school diplomas. Most did not have baccalaureate degrees or certification in any subject, and the 1990 voucher law permitted this educational travesty. When these elements of the legislation came to light, the chastened lawmakers quickly amended the decree to require all future voucher school teachers to have at least a four-year college degree, but did not mandate that they be certified. However, those who held less than a high school diploma or college degree were grandfathered in and were allowed to continue teaching as long as they took classes to earn a bachelor’s degree. In other words, teachers with limited education themselves were permitted to continue teaching in classrooms full of academically-challenged students whose parents had been hoodwinked into school choice.

And this is where public schools turn into profit centers. First, charter and voucher school funding is pulled from existing public school budgets in their service areas. Since charter companies have no formal pay scales for their employees, they are able to pay their teachers lower salaries, often barely above minimum wage. Second, many of the charter school executives, frequently called presidents and/or CEOs after their business counterparts, and other administrators are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for supervising small numbers of students. For example, the Options Charter School in Washington, D.C. (closed due to kickbacks and corruption) paid its CEO $500,000 annually, plus benefits, to oversee 400 students, more than $200,000 above that of the D.C. superintendent, who is responsible for 44,000 students, and $100,000 above the yearly income of the President of the United States, who is leader of the free world.

When you add the 1:1 tax advantages given to corporations who make contributions to charter schools in throughout America, individuals and corporate entities are feeding at the public trough.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is who is actually driving school choice? The Cartel of education reformers generated the concept of school choice and then fashioned it to serve their interests. It developed a professed lottery that it controls for the selection of students; charter schools do not provide comprehensive services for special need students, causing many to drop out; students can be dismissed without due process if their parents do not attend required meetings, volunteer at the school, or fail to honor any other elements of the charter school contract each parent is required to sign. So the question remains: Do parents get to choose their children’s schools in the school choice paradigm, or are the charter schools choosing them?

links to all 20 parts of the opening series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell. 

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