Charter Schools: A Breakaway School System But Somehow Worse
I first became involved in education advocacy in 2012 fighting against the proposed breakaway school district that eventually morphed into the effort to create the breakaway city of St. George in East Baton Rouge Parish. The proposed City of St. George may now be better known, but the initial objective was just to create a breakaway school system, and many people could immediately see how it would exacerbate the segregation of our schools. The financial harm became more apparent after Jim Richardson and Roy Heidelberg, LSU researchers, published their study, “School District Restructuring & Reform: East Baton Rouge Parish.”
The breakaway school district proposal was clearly racially discriminatory, and when we would say this, the breakaway proponents would cry, “You’re calling us racist. We’re not racist.” And our response was always, “Your intentions are beside the point. They don’t matter. The only thing that matters is the effect your proposal would have, and it is clearly racially discriminatory.”
What everyone needs to understand is that charter schools in Louisiana are essentially breakaway school systems, but worse. Charter schools cause the same harm as the breakaway school district would have, but in addition, they do other really insidious things:
- Charter schools are eroding our voting rights. They divert the power of school boards whose members are elected to that of charter school boards whose members are appointed. Voters effectively lose their ability to elect representatives to oversee their schools.
Charter school boards are not only unelected. They are not even required to have any stakeholders from the school on them—no teachers, no students, no parents. The members of the surrounding community do not get to vote on who serves on that board. It’s reminiscent of the way it was during Jim Crow. In fact, when considered in conjunction with our school accountability system, which is racially and culturally discriminatory, the manner in which schools are chartered resurrects the manner in which Jim Crow era literacy tests operated. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, African American adults were required to pass a literacy test in order to be granted the right to vote. Today, the students must continually pass the state mandated tests for the adults to retain the right to elect meaningful representation to their school’s governing body.
- Charter schools siphon our tax dollars out of our community so that those funds are no longer invested in facilities and resources that will benefit future generations. One way they do this is through real estate arrangements. Our tax dollars pay for charter school facilities. They often pay for new school facilities to be constructed, but because charter schools typically enter into finance or capital lease agreements with for-profit real estate companies to pay for the facilities, the community will never ultimately own those facilities. The for-profit real estate companies retain ownership. With such an arrangement, the charter school will always have to pay rent, which will inevitably rise in price with inflation, and there is no guarantee the facility will be available for future generations. The real estate company can decide to deny the school a renewal on its lease in order to rent to a company that could pay significantly more.
These lease arrangements have become a marketable investment opportunity for the charter school company. It’s one of the primary drivers of charter school proliferation. It explains why Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and real estate mogul, and other billionaires have been spending millions of dollars in our school board elections. And it is reminiscent of the ways in which majority African American communities have historically seen a lack of investment in public infrastructure in their communities.
- Charter schools are undermining the teaching profession. Charter schools are not required by Louisiana law to hire certified teachers, adhere to salary schedules, or participate in the Teachers’ Retirement System. The absence of professional credentials, good pay, and a secure retirement undermines teaching as a profession and our students will suffer as a result.
The original charter school model was an ideal vision, which many people supported with the best of intentions. But the charter school concept has been hijacked by financial interests to generate profits for private companies rather than provide a quality education to all students.
While most charter school proponents may support charter schools with the best of intentions, as was the case with the proponents of the breakaway school district, their intentions are beside the point. What matters is the effect their proposal is having on the community. And what charter schools are doing is:
- Eroding if not eliminating voting rights;
- Siphoning resources out of the community and into national and multinational corporations;
- Destabilizing the teaching profession.
If anyone wonders about the racial implications of charter schools, it is important to note that majority white communities are not being asked to give up the democratic control of their schools—to forsake democracy—in an effort to receive a free and appropriate education for their children.
At least not yet.