Is Money and Profit What’s Behind Charter School Fever?

September 24, 2010  |  

On Monday’s episode of Oprah, the hyperbolic excitement wasn’t because of a trip to Australia, or one of Oprah’s favorite things, but her interview with Waiting for “Superman” director Davis Guggenheim.

Guggenheim, also director of “An Inconvenient Truth”, gushed about how he hoped his movie would spark a national conversation on education much like the one we’re still having on global warming. First we had a national conversation on race, then global warming, and now we’re being urged to embark on a national conversation about our crumbling education system. I am exhausted of conversations.

My exhaustion notwithstanding, I managed to trudge along and watch the Oprah episode in its entirety. What struck me most about the conversation between Oprah and her guests was the way in which they all went on and on about the success of charter schools.

It is true that some charter schools have displayed innovative approaches to education which resulted in increased test scores and graduation rates. There are, however, an equal number of charter schools which have either run out of funding or shown less achievement than their public counterparts. Had you watched the Oprah show on Monday, you wouldn’t have known that such disparities existed among charter schools. So why the race to bless charter schools and anoint them the saving grace of our public school system?

The answer: Money.

Policy analyst and former charter school advocate Dr. Diane Ravitch recently reversed her position on charter schools because of what she describes as an “effort to upend American public education and replace it with something market-based.” In the end, Ravitch concluded that charter schools “were proving to be no better on average than regular schools, but in many cities were bleeding resources from the public system.”

Many advocates of charter schools see dollar signs and not the despondent faces of sweet little urban and minority youth who are trapped in failing schools. There are millions of dollars in public education and charter schools are one way of redirecting those federal funds to private institutions.

Over the past 10 years we’ve seen a variety of tasks normally reserved for the federal government outsourced to private corporations. The Internal Revenue Service now hires private debt collection firms to supplement their own agents, the U.S. Military hires Haliburton to protect U.S. diplomats, and very soon charter schools will be hiring teachers and administrators to the job that underfunded public schools can no longer manage.

And the push back against charter schools isn’t at all aided by Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, one of charter school’s biggest advocates, who hustles American Express credit cards in television ads. The advertisement only highlights charter school’s connection to free market principles. Like it or not, it is the job of public schools to educate America’s youth. If lawmakers and education advocates were truly serious about renewing our education system, they would do as Ravitch advises and follow the lead of other nations. As Ravitch points out, “nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect.” To look toward charter schools as the savior of our public school system is absolutely absurd.

Yvette Carnell is a former Capitol Hill Staffer turned political blogger. She currently publishes two blogs, and

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