JACKSON — Mississippi is on the brink of passing legislation to permit privately-managed charter schools to open. This is a bad idea. Charter schools have been in existence for twenty years, and grand claims are made for them, but don’t believe the hype.
I live in New York City, where our mayor has opened over 100 charter schools. As they expand, they cause fragmentation in communities, as charters and public schools squabble over space and resources. Instead of people working together around common goals, they are jousting over students, resources, and facilities. Critics say that charters get preferential treatment, because of their wealthy backers. Some charter operators are expanding aggressively into neighborhoods where there is intense community opposition.
When charters close, either because of financial mismanagement or awful academic results, the students are left stranded. We see that now in New Orleans, where the closure of the Sojourner Truth Charter school has left students without teachers and without a meaningful education. In some ways, it’s like when Walmart comes to a region and the mom-and-pop stores; if Walmart decides to close because they aren’t making enough money, the community is left without a Main Street.
Private management of public money opens the door to all kinds of problems and abuses. The nation’s largest charter chain produces high test scores, but it is run mostly by the Gulen movement, a small, little known Turkish organization. For more on Gulen and on the problems of charters, check out this website: Charterschoolscandals, created by a parent activist in California.
Study after study shows that charters don’t get better results on average than regular public schools. The best known national study in 2009 found that 17% got better test scores than neighborhood public schools, 36% got worse scores, and 46% were no different. In other words, five out of six new charters don’t outperform the public schools. In most cities and states, charters don’t do any better or worse than the public schools.
Some charters get high test scores by skimming the best students and enrolling disproportionately small numbers of students with disabilities and English language learners. The more the charters attract the best students and the ones who are easiest to educate, the more the regular public schools are weakened. That’s bad for the majority of students and the whole community.
Charter schools undermine regular public schools. The charters get their funding right out of the public school budget. When charters open, enrolling a small proportion of students in the community, the neighborhood public schools lose funding. In some communities, public schools have had to lay off teachers and shut down programs because of this loss of funding to charters.
Charters are not a good use of taxpayer dollars. For-profit charter schools transfer tax revenues as profit for their investors. They should be banned altogether from Mississippi. Many of the non-profits pay executive salaries that are far more than principals in the state receive. Online charters are the biggest waste of all because their test scores and graduation rates are worse than the public schools, and they have a high attrition rate as well. The chief executive officer of the biggest for-profit online charter corporation was paid $5 million last year, all from public dollars.
Charters won’t help the large number of Mississippi children who live in rural and semi-rural areas. It makes no sense to open a charter school in a community where the existing public school is struggling to provide adequate resources and a decent education for the children.
And let’s face it: charters are a form of privatization. They get public money, but they are managed by private boards and private corporations. Charters have not figured out a secret sauce for educating children. They face the same problems as existing schools, and the competition between charters and public schools means diminished resources for both, not better education.
It is the wrong time in our nation’s history to be building a dual system of education—one privately managed, and one fully in the public sector. This is a risky undertaking. The Civil Rights Project at the University of California has warned repeatedly that charters are often more segregated than their surrounding districts.
The public schools are a basic building block of democracy. Mississippi should be strengthening them, not setting up a competing system of privately managed schools. The highest-performing nations in the world, like Finland, Japan, and Korea, do not have charters. They have a great public school system and well-educated, highly respected teachers.
Wouldn’t it make more sense for the people of Mississippi to work together to build better public schools for all the children of Mississippi?
Diane Ravitch, a graduate of the Houston public schools, is a historian of education at New York University.