Many people have written to me to complain about an article that appeared Wednesday on the front page of the New York Times, saying it was pro-charter propaganda. The article claims that black and brown parents are offended that the Democratic candidates (with the exception of Cory Booker, now polling at 1 percent) have turned their backs on charter schools.
This is not true. Black parents in Little Rock, Arkansas are fighting at this very moment to stop the Walton-controlled state government from controlling their district and resegregating it with charter schools. Jitu Brown and his allies fought to keep Rahm Emanuel from closing Walter H. Dyett High School, the last open-enrollment public high school on the South Side of Chicago; they launched a thirty-four-day hunger strike, and Rahm backed down. Jitu Brown’s Journey for Justice Alliance has organized black parents in twenty-five cities to fight to improve their neighborhood public schools rather than let them be taken over by corporate charter chains.
Black parents in many other districts — think Detroit — are disillusioned with the failed promises of charter schools. Eve Ewing wrote a terrific book (Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side) about resistance by parents, grandparents, students, and teachers in the black community to Rahm Emanuel’s mass closings of public schools to make way for charter schools; Ewing called their response “institutional mourning.” When Puerto Rico teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, parents, teachers, and students rallied against efforts to turn the island’s public schools over to charter chains.
The article’s claim that “hundreds of thousands” of students are on “waiting lists” to enroll in charters links to a five-year-old press release by a charter advocacy group, the National Alliance for Charter Schools. In fact, there has never been verification of any “waitlist” for charters. Although there are surely charters that do have waitlists, just as there are public schools that have long waitlists, there is no evidence that hundreds of thousands of students are clamoring to gain admission to charters. That claim appears to be a marketing ploy.
Earlier this year, a member of the Los Angeles school board revealed that 80 percent of the charters in that city have empty seats. Just this past week, a well-established Boston charter announced that it was closing one campus and consolidating its other two because of declining enrollments. Four of Bill Gates’s charter schools in Washington State have closed due to low enrollments. The only effort to verify the claim of “waiting lists” was carried out by Isaiah Thompson, a public radio reporter in Boston; his review showed that the list contained many duplications, even triplications, since many students applied to more than one school, and the same lists held the names of students who had already enrolled in a charter school or a public school.
Perhaps the Times will now interview Dr/Rev. Anika Whitfield in Little Rock to learn about the struggles of Grassroots Arkansas to block the Walton campaign to destroy their public schools. Perhaps its reporters will interview Jitu Brown to hear from a genuine civil rights leader who is not funded by the Waltons or the Bradley Foundation or Betsy DeVos. Perhaps they will dig into the data in Ohio, where two-thirds of the state’s charter schools were rated either “D” or “F” by the state in 2018, and where the state’s biggest cyber charter went into bankruptcy earlier this year after draining away over $1 billion from public schools’ coffers. Perhaps they will cover the news from New Orleans, the only all-charter district in the nation, where the state just posted its school scores and reported that 49 percent of the charters in New Orleans are rated either “D” or “F.” Perhaps they will cover the numerous real estate scandals that have enabled unscrupulous charter operators to fleece taxpayers.
Fairness requires that the New York Times take a closer look at this issue, not by interviewing advocates for the charter industry, but by trying to understand why so many Democrats, especially progressives, have abandoned the charter crusade. Why has the charter movement lost its luster? Why has the number of new charters plummeted nationally despite the expenditure of $440 million a year by the federal government and even more by foundations like Gates, Broad, DeVos, Bloomberg, Koch, and Walton. Maybe it was the disappointment in their lackluster, often very poor, academic performance. Or maybe it was the almost daily revelations of waste, fraud, and abuse that occurs when public money is handed to entrepreneurs without any accountability or oversight.
The question that must be answered is whether it is just and sensible to create two publicly funded school systems, instead of appropriately funding the public schools that enroll forty-seven million students, almost 90 percent of all students. It serves the interests of billionaires to keep people fighting about governance and structure, but it serves the interest of our society to invest in great public schools for everyone.