Privately-operated charter schools have been around for 32 years. They fail and close every week, abandoning and harming hundreds of parents, students, teachers, education support staff, and principals. Neoliberals cynically call this “free market accountability.”
These closures, moreover, are often sudden and abrupt, revealing deep problems and instability in the charter school sector. Parents, students, teachers, education support staff, and principals often report being blindsided by such closures and how they have to anxiously scramble to find new schools for students.
Officially, 2,315 charter schools failed and closed between 2010-11 and 2021-22 alone (an 11-year period). On average, that is 210 privately-operated charter school failures and closures per year, or four charter school failures and closures per week. The real number is likely higher. Over the course of 30+ years more than 4,000 privately-operated charter schools have failed and closed. That is a high number given the fact that there are under 8,000 privately-operated charter schools in the country today.
The top four reasons privately-operated charter schools fail and close every week include low enrollment, poor academic performance, financial malfeasance, and mismanagement. Thus, for example, every week the mainstream media is filled with articles on fraud, corruption, nepotism, and embezzlement in the charter school sector. Not surprisingly, arrests and indictments of charter school employees, trustees, and owners are common.
While fraud, corruption, nepotism, embezzlement, and scandal pervade many institutions, sectors, and spheres in America, such problems are more common and intense in the charter school sector.
Despite all this, a dishonest neoliberal narrative keeps insisting that these privately-operated schools are superior to the public schools that have been defunded and demonized by neoliberals for more than 40 years. The public is constantly under top-down pressure to ignore or trivialize persistent charter school failures and problems.
In this context, the public should reject relentless neoliberal disinformation that public schools are a commodity or some sort of “free market” phenomenon. It should discard the idea that parents and students are consumers who should fend-for-themselves while “shopping” for a school. The law of the jungle has no place in a modern society. Such a ruthless survival-of-the-fittest approach to individuals, education, and society is outmoded, guarantees winners and losers, perpetuates inequality, and increases stress for everyone.
The public should defend the principle that education in a modern society is a social human responsibility and a basic human right, not a commodity or consumer good that people have to compete for. A companion principle is that public funds belong only to public schools governed by a public authority worthy of the name.
Charter schools are not public schools. They are privatized education arrangements, which means that they should not have access to any public funds that belong to public schools. Public funds should not be funneled to private interests. School privatization violates the right to education.
Currently, about 3.7 million students are enrolled in roughly 7,800 privately-operated charter schools across the country. The U.S. public education system, on the other hand, has been around for more than 150 years and educates about 45 million students in nearly 100,000 schools.
Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card.