Can the Charter Movement Be Saved?

Can we agree that the charter school ‘movement’ is in big trouble?  Scandals emerge daily, or so it seems.   “Are Charter Schools the New Enron?”, one reputable study asks, for example.  Here’s one awful scandal.   Here’s another.  This is not just smoke; it’s a raging fire that threatens all charter schools, it seems to me.

Everyone knows that charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, supposedly bound by a ‘charter’ that spells out what the school will accomplish.  These licenses, typically for three or five years, are not supposed to be renewed if the school does not deliver. That does happen occasionally, but most often charters are renewed unless and until some awful scandal–usually financial–emerges.  And most charter schools are not financially transparent, meaning that it’s probable that more skullduggery goes unnoticed than is exposed.  That means that public funds–possibly billions of dollars–have been going into private pockets. I write about this at some length in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (which is available at good bookstores and on Amazon).

Charter schools were supposed to allow educators to innovate and improve student learning, and the best of them have done so.  However, academically, the overall results are mixed at best, and in some instances have led to more segregation by race and class. 

Those interested in the history of the movement should turn to Ember Reichgott Junge’s book, Zero Chance of Passage, a compelling read.  For critical analysis of the book and the charter story in Minnesota, go here.

I’ve been interested in this story since I moderated the founding meeting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1988, thirty years ago this October, and I’ve reported on charter schools in Arizona, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, New Orleans, Minnesota, and elsewhere.  Since the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992, thousands more have been started, and some bizarre things happened:  1) Entrepreneurs and hustlers saw an opening for money-making; 2) some ideologues saw charter schools as an opportunity to bust teacher unions and maybe get school vouchers too; and 3) some elitists of varying political stripes decided they could open a charter school that would, in effect, be their children’s private school (at public expense).

But it was not all bad, not by a long shot, because lots of decent, idealistic men and women jumped at the opportunity to provide transformative educational experiences for children.

While in theory there are non-profit charter schools and for-profit ones, that’s a distinction without a real difference, because some of the supposed non-profit ones are laughing all the way to the bank.  That said, for-profit schools (usually run by an Education Management Organization, EMO) are, as far as I can tell, almost uniformly bad.  Here’s some good news: Just today California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law legislation banning for-profit charter schools across the state.  Let’s hope more states follow that example!

What’s more, all non-profit charter schools must be required to as financially transparent as their traditional public schools!

Plus we need strong oversight of on-line charter schools, a major scam in too many places.

The best-known charter schools like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First are large networks; these are known as Charter Management Organizations, shortened to CMO’s.  If you are in New York City, you must know about Eva Moskowitz and her CMO/network of Success Academies. Those schools are controversial because of their harsh tactics that cull their classes of students, usually ones who aren’t likely to do well on standardized tests, often using ‘out of school suspensions’ for very young children.  I’ve reported on this for the PBS NewsHour, as has Kate Taylor of The New York Times.  And you can read Eva’s draconian list of 65 offenses for which a child can be suspended here.  (Some fans of Benito Mussolini were upset when I compared the two.)

What you may not know is that most  of the roughly 5,500 charter schools are one-off, independent institutions, sometimes called ‘Mom and Pop’ charter schools.  Within this universe is a wide range of institutions, many of them focused on children and run by idealistic and public-spirited men and women.

But not all!  Some skirt or cross the line.  Two years ago I became curious about the salaries of charter school operators. How much were they paying themselves, on a per-pupil basis?  The winner of my faux award for “Does Least, Earns Most” was the operator of one of those independent charter schools!  

So where are we today? As I argue in “Addicted,” the term charter school today is virtually meaningless. It’s akin to saying ‘restaurant,’ a term that tells you nothing about the type, quality, or cost of the food being served.   That should have the supporters of quality charter schools up in arms….but it doesn’t.

I began by asking whether the charter school movement can be saved.  Well, the supposed ‘good guys’ of the movement don’t seem to be lifting a finger.  The major group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is conspicuously silent about the burgeoning scandals, as are the major Charter Management Organizations like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First.

The only positive step I am aware of has been taken by a small group of independent charter school operators, led by a human dynamo named Steve Zimmerman.  The group is committed to financial transparency, multiple measures of learning, no admissions tests for students, and local, site-based decision making about everything that goes on in the schools.  I have gotten involved in the start-up process and co-moderated a virtual teleconference of independent charter school operators just last week.   Co-host Chris Norwood of Florida and I had a good time bouncing from coast to coast, talking with students and administrators at independent charter schools in Los Angeles; Queens, NY; Rhode Island; North Carolina; Oregon; St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota; Livingston, Alabama; Lake Wales, Florida; Denver, Colorado; Maine; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Orange County, California over the course of 2 1/2 hours. Legendary educator Debbie Meier stopped by in person.  You can watch all or parts of the event here.

The new organization has a name: the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools.  Please take a look at what this organization stands for.  So far a few hundred independent charter schools have taken the pledge.  Stay tuned for the next six or eight months to see how many are willing to stand up and be counted, because this group might well be the charter school movement’s best chance for surviving.


3 thoughts on “Can the Charter Movement Be Saved?

  1. Thanks John! Although this may seem like shameless self-promotion, I think you might be interested in my forthcoming article about charter school oversight in Philadelphia: Oversight, Charter Schools, and a Thorough and Efficient System of Public Education. It is available at In a nutshell, I look at the Philadelphia School District’s efforts to take the authorization and renewal process seriously–and the blowback they got.

    Susan DeJarnatt


  2. Susan
    I’d be a huge hypocrite if I objected to self-promotion! I will click on your article now. I have an ongoing interest in Philadelphia schools inasmuch as I spent 6 years chronicling David Hornbeck’s failed attempt to change the system; I’ve also done some other reporting about Philadelphia schools, which (self-promotion alert) I write about in “Addicted to Reform.”


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