Charter Schools Are No Panacea

Now that Betsy DeVos has been selected as secretary of education, it is important to consider the issue of charter schools in a reasoned and logical fashion.

Parents should have the ability to choose the school they deem best for their children.  But how will this actually occur?  Will students from an inner-city school opt to go to a wealthier school district, where scores are higher and education more intense?  Will they be bused if they live too far?  Who will be paying the taxes for the additional teaching staff and materials to accommodate the students?

There are mixed reviews about the success of charter schools.  They hinge on the dichotomy between charter schools and district schools.  David P. Magnani, who was the Senate chair of the Education Committee in Massachusetts, reminds readers that "most have forgotten that charter schools were created to serve as 'laboratories of change,' disseminating new ideas, not as competitors to existing district schools.  To date, very little, if any, of this 'dissemination' agenda has been achieved, largely because neither charter nor district schools have any mandate and few resources, incentives or the regulatory environment for such dissemination."  In fact, Magnani maintains that "charter schools have increased inequality overall, contrary to initial intent."  He cites a 2009 UCLA study that confirms this finding.  Moreover, in "suburban districts, charter schools hurt district schools in another way: by leaving children with the most severe physical or intellectual disabilities as district responsibilities."

For those who would argue about the economics of charter schools, Magnani maintains that "in spite of temporary reimbursements from the commonwealth, over time, the district actually loses money for each student it sends to a charter school.  This is because the average cost-per-student leaves the district and 'follows the child,' but the marginal district 'savings' are less than the amount the district is required to send to the charter school."

But let us set aside the economic concerns for a moment.  How have charter schools fared concerning the educational attainment of their students?

First and foremost, it is critical to understand the vital connection between parental interest and school achievement.  Parental engagement has always produced more engaged students because the child has a back-up system that promotes student academic success.  Moreover, as E.D. Hirsch has noted, "a systemic failure to teach all children the knowledge they need in order to understand what the next grade has to offer is the major source of avoidable injustice in our schools. ... It is impossible for a teacher to reach all children when some of them lack the necessary building blocks of learning." 

In her 2016 piece, Kate Zernike of the New York Times writes that  "Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina.  But half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit's traditional public schools."

John Oliver at Business Insider asserts that "[s]ome charters are "so flawed, ...  that they don't make it through the year.  The most flawed are in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  Charters have also had problems with misuse of funds, as they are supposed to be nonprofit but certain groups aim to make a profit, and there's been lackadaisical attendance monitoring for online charters."

For those charter schools that have been high-performing, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post explains that in Pennsylvania, "high performing charters school had certain common characteristics" that include "innovative education programs with most of them focused on a specific approach to education instruction or a specific academic area of instructional focus."  They tend to offer longer and more school days as well as   more individualized education programs.  They also tend to be smaller and have fewer special education students than traditional students.

But then Strauss goes on to explore a dozen problems associated with charter schools, including "little more than reading and math test prep, inexperienced teachers with high turnover, and 'blended learning' products designed to enrich charter school board members' investment portfolios."  Moreover, there is a "lack of transparency and accountability" and an "increasing segregation based on race, ethnicity, and income."

Public schools used to be able to produce high-quality education for all strata of people  because the books and tools were comprehensive and not politically driven – not the politically correct drivel that has been steamrolled into education.  For example, in the past, writers from all over the world were part of a solid curriculum without there being an overriding and often anti-Western approach to the study of great literature.  As Sol Stern has written, a "half-century of discredited instructional practices in the classroom" has hurt generations of Americans in the public school system.  Stern writes that while "charters seem to have produced significant gains for students in some school districts including New Orleans, Washington, D.C. and New York," a "study of charter school effects nationally found that only 17 percent of all charters had higher academic gains than similar public schools, while 37 percent had worse performance.  Forty-six percent of charters performed no better or worse than public schools in the same district," and the "grade for voucher programs is also an Incomplete."

Actually, the school system has "been transformed  into a knowledge-free zone," which is, sadly, producing the "dumbest generation" ever.  It is evident in every two- and four-year school of higher education where I teach.  Instructors of every discipline relate breathtaking stories of ignorance.

And it all began in the 1960s.  First, affirmative action or open enrollment was begun, which initiated an acceptance of lower standards.  Proven instructional practices were abandoned so much so that today's college student majoring in history knows less than people aged 70+ who obtained only a high school degree.  Instead, "preferred pronouns, gender-neutral bathrooms, and pansexuality" are the topics in a 21st-century classroom.

Incrementally, "progressive educators succeeded in stripping away any semblance of a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum."  Mushy educational theories such as whole language, Eurocentric curricula, and the belief that memorization and "mere facts" are useless now permeated the halls of learning, and children were set adrift.  Every year, another "new" but totally confusing way to learn mathematics was introduced.  The latest assault is the abandonment of cursive writing.

As could be expected from all these actions, the racial achievement gaps loom larger each year.  Vocabulary study has all but been abandoned so that my college students do not know the meaning of words that used to be part of the seventh grade vocabulary list.  If they have such a huge vocabulary gap, it has, in effect, rendered them incapable of writing and articulating ideas well.

Thus, it is totally understandable why parents, especially those living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, would see charter schools as the panacea.  But how will the charter schools begin to incorporate a knowledge-based curriculum, and even more importantly, why can't public schools do the same?  Public schools were the means for assimilating students to appreciate America; instead, charter schools may lead to a balkanization of American students so that genuine diversity is not promoted.

Another disturbing aspect of charter schools is highlighted by Siddique Malik, who has written of the "dangerous mirage of charter schools" that will, in effect, warm the hearts of  "Saudi propaganda strategists [who] will love any American state's public school system going charter because [then] their agents will ... invoke the  U.S. Constitution's equality clauses to demand public money for certain schools that will eventually become Saudi Arabia's satellite schools."  Currently, in public schools, sixth-grade students are being force-fed Islam in a public school classroom.  How much worse will it become when charter schools are able to do this?

Over 100 Islamist tax-funded charter schools are currently operating in the United States.  They are schools that follow the Sunni imam Fethullah Gülen, leader of a politically powerful Turkish religion movement.  Arnold Ahlert explains that a "federal document released in 2011 ... posits that Gulen's charter schools may in fact be madrassahs, where students are 'brain-washed' to serve as proponents of the New Islamic World Order Gulen purportedly seeks to create."  In addition, The Gülen schools are among the nation's largest users of H-1B visas, used to import foreign workers with technical skills to fill job shortages of qualified American workers.  Parents have alleged that certified, competent American teachers have been replaced at higher salaries by uncertified Turkish men who speak limited English.  They claim that the schools "discriminate against women and non-Turkish teachers and that Gülen teachers receive preferential treatment."

The devil is in the details, and I worry that the rush to charter schools may be ushering in another huge set of problems that will afflict the next generation of students.

Eileen can be reached at

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