In 1988, teachers union leader Albert Shanker had an idea: What if teachers were allowed to create a school within a school, where they could develop innovative ways to teach dropouts and unmotivated students? The teachers would get the permission of their colleagues and the local school board to open their school, which would be an R&D lab for the regular public school. These experimental schools, he said, would be called “charter schools.”
Five years later, in 1993, Shanker publicly renounced his proposal. The idea had been adopted by businesses seeking profits, he said, and would be used, like vouchers, to privatize public schools and destroy teachers unions.
Today, there are more than 7,000 charter schools with about 3 million students (total enrollment in public schools is 50 million). About90 percent of charter schools are nonunion. Charters are more segregated than public schools, prompting the Civil Rights Project at UCLA in 2010 to call charter schools “a major political success” but “a civil rights failure.”
On average, charters do not get better academic results than public schools, according to the National Education Policy Center, except for those that have high attrition rates and that control their demographics to favor high-scoring groups.
The lowest-scoring urban district in the nation is Detroit, where more than half the children are enrolled in charters. The highest-ranked charters in the nation are the BASIS charters in Arizona, where 83 percent of students are either Asian or white.
Charter schools drain resources and the students they want from public schools. When students leave for charters, the public schools must fire teachers, reduce offerings and increase class sizes.
American education seems to be evolving into a dual school system, one operated under democratic control (overseen by a board that was either elected by the people or appointed by an elected official) , the other under private control.