Another Day, Another Charter Scandal

The people who have insisted on the profound moral need to save struggling children have been remarkably silent about the decades of failure in charter schools.

Students at Metro Charter School in Los Angeles. Neon Tommy / Flickr

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A charter school regime sweeps into town with grand ambitions, lofty rhetoric, and missionary zeal, promising to save underperforming kids with the magic of markets and by getting rid of those lazy teachers and their greedy unions. What results instead is no demonstrable learning gains, serial rule breaking, underhanded tactics to attract students, a failure to provide for students with disabilities, and a total lack of real accountability.

That’s the story in Nashville. It’s not a new story.

The official narrative is that students and parents will flock to charters, given that they provide “choice,” and in so doing sprinkle students with magical capitalism dust that, somehow — the mechanism is never clear — results in sturdy learning gains. (That schools have both abundant ability to juice the numbers and direct incentive to do so usually goes undiscussed.) Yet the charters in Nashville, like those in the horrific mess in Detroit, are so driven by the need to get dollars – precisely the thing that was supposed to make charters better than public, in the neoliberal telling — that they have to resort to dirty tricks to get parents to sign their children up. And what kind of conditions do students face when they do go to these schools?

On March 7 WSMV-TV reported that California-based Rocketship isn’t providing legally required services to students with disabilities and English language learners. A report by the Tennessee Department of Education even found that Rocketship is forcing homeless students to scrape together money to pay for uniforms.

Lately you may have heard about “public charter schools.” But there is no such thing as a public charter school. Public schools entail public accountability. They involve local control. So-called public charters just take public money, tax dollars. The “flexibility” that is so often touted as part of the charter school magic really means that the citizens who fund these charters have none of the local control of schools that has been such an essential part of public education.

And so in Nashville you have area citizens getting mass texted to send their kids to charters that benefit for-profit companies, who then in turn can’t actually directly respond through a local school board or municipal government. When parents feel they need to file a class action lawsuit to enforce some accountability on out-of-control local schools, we’ve officially gone around the bend.

I try to have patience for the army of people who are charter school true believers, still, after all this scandal and all this failure. I remind myself that there are people who sincerely believe that charters are the best route forward to improve education. (Which of course means “raise test scores” in our current culture.)

I try not to view them as cynically as I do, say, for-profit prison advocates claiming that they’re really in it to make society safer. I remind myself that missionary zeal and a dogged belief that all social problems can be solved if we just believe hard enough can really cloud people’s minds.

But the fact of the matter is that the charter school “movement” is absolutely stuffed to the gills with profiteers and grifters. Thanks to the nearly-universal credulousness of our news media towards the school reform movement, some greased palms in local, state, and federal government, and the powerful and pernicious influence of big-money philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation, the conditions have been perfect for rampant corruption and bad behavior.

Charter school advocates rang the dinner bell for entire industries that seek to ring profit out of our commitment to universal free education, and the wolves predictably followed. Meanwhile, charters continue to be pushed based on bad research, attrition, and survivorship bias, dubious quality metrics, and through undue focus on small, specific, atypical success stories whose conditions cannot possibly scale.

And the people who have spent so much time flogging the profound moral need to save struggling children have been remarkably silent about the decades of failure in charter schools writ large. Where is Jonathan Alter to decry the corruption and failure in Nashville? Where is Jonathan Chait’s column admitting that the charter school movement has proven to be an unsalvageable mess? Where is the follow up to Waiting for “Superman,” titled Turns Out Superman Isn’t Real and Other Dispatches from Planet Earth? That’s the problem with zealots; they’re always too busy circling the wagons for their pet causes to actually look at them critically.

As the Betsy DeVoses of the world make policy, as companies get rich wringing profit out of poor school districts, and as writers make careers for themselves with soaring rhetoric and tough talk about accountability that, somehow, never changes in the light of new evidence, we’ll see more school reform disasters like those in Nashville, Detroit, and Newark. Will that do anything to slow the charter movement? Not on your life.