The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Charter schools:
Turning a profit, at the kids' expense

Jul 19, 2004

There is a new push to set up charter schools in the city of Detroit. People may have thought the effort was dead after a bill to allow more charter schools to be built in Michigan appeared to have been dropped last fall – or so Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and many legislators made it seem.

Since that time, multimillionaire Robert Thompson offered 200 million dollars to open more charter schools in Detroit. Since that offer was refused, politicians and the media have used the lost donation to make propaganda for charter schools.

It's easy to understand why some parents might be attracted to the idea of charter schools – the public schools do not provide a quality education, at least not in working class areas. But many of the parents who moved their kids into charter schools, thinking they will be better, later found out they had only jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.

Charter schools were set up not as a way to provide a quality education, but to steal profits for the company or institution that sets them up – including universities who set up charter schools to funnel public school money into their endowments. The money to fund charter schools comes from the public school system that is forced to authorize them. Even when a "benefactor" like Thompson gives money to build a school, the money to run the schools comes out of Detroit public school funding.

But the public school system has no oversight of the charter schools. They are not held to the same standards as the public schools. They do not make public standardized test scores, like those of the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) test. At the beginning, some of them did, but stopped when the test results showed their scores were as bad or worse than those from the public schools. This is true not just in Michigan but wherever such schools have been set up.

In fact, schools that have been run by private companies, like those run by Edison Schools, Inc., have been shown to have performed worse in most cases than public schools. Many of these schools do not provide an education that allows their students to go to junior college or technical schools, not to mention the university.

The drive to create more charter schools in Michigan is part of a larger national movement that has existed for some time now. The national effort to create charter schools gained steam in 1994 when Congress passed a bill encouraging states to create charter schools. In a number of places, religious groups rushed to set up charter schools – as a way to get public school funding for their religion. But the real push has come from Wall Street, which wants to get its hands on public school money. In 1996, the Wall Street investment firm Lehman Brothers issued a report saying, "the education industry may replace health care in 1996 as THE focus industry." A director at the company added that America's public schools are "ripe for takeover by private management companies...Wall Street is interested in any big spending industry." At that time, there were 250 charter schools in 23 states. Today there are about 3,000 charter schools in 40 states.

The drive to create charter schools – to the extent it's successful – will end up destroying the public schools by draining the money from them. Public schools were won through social struggles dating back to the 1800s. It was only with the growth of public schools that working people could get an education for their children. Charter schools take us backward hundreds of years to before that time.

Three thousand people demonstrated last October in Michigan's capital, Lansing, pushing back, for a time at least, that drive to add more charter schools. It will take similar and bigger efforts to stop it once more.