Charter schools, ESAs, and “paycheck protection” are scams, but thanks to the power of West Virginia’s teachers’ unions they have been defeated, for now. Last week’s strike thwarted the omnibus bill that would have drastically changed West Virginia’s education system, but the important thing to remember is that much of SB 451 is boilerplate legislation written by lobbying groups such as ALEC. It is part of a larger attack on public education that has taken place around the country. Proponents of these policies want to turn education into a market, profit from “investing” in educational products, save on their taxes, divert public money to private schools, and undermine teachers’ unions.
These are the scams being perpetrated by ALEC and the lawmakers that do their bidding:
1) Charter schools are not as successful as their proponents make them out to be. Their success rates are skewed because unsuccessful schools often close (sometimes mid-school year) before their failures are factored into the overall average. Charter schools also have more leeway rid themselves of “bad” kids that hurt their average. This is because charter schools are unaccountable to the public. To the extent they do “better” is related to the percentage of kids in the school who are poor—just like public schools.1
2) Charter schools are supposed to be non-profit, but they are effectively middle-men between the state and for-profit companies that administer the schools, provide services, and get big software contracts. Those pushing for these schools are often investors in the companies who provide these services.2 They emphasize using software to teach the kids, since the software can be “produced once and consumed many times.” Because charter schools are paid the same amount per student as traditional schools, this ensures high profit margins. Proponents of charter schools don’t care about educating kids, just making money.3
3) Charter schools are billed as small “experiments” to see how to improve education, but most are part of a consolidated system of ownership by the same big corporations.4
4) It is telling that pro-charter school “documentaries” like Waiting for Superman (2010), funded by investors in private schools, admit that Finland has one of the best school systems in the world, but then go on to attack teachers’ unions without mentioning that Finland’s teachers are heavily unionized.
5) When paired with other “reforms” like standardized testing, charter schools create perverse incentives: the schools shrink curricula to focus on the subjects that are tested, and much of the time “teaching” these subjects is spent on test-taking strategies rather than fostering genuine understanding.5
6) The same people pushing charter schools also push for lower levels of teacher training and certification. They claim “competition” will generate better teachers, but in reality, it creates a race to the bottom. It creates a larger pool of applicants desperate to work for little pay.6
7) Education savings accounts, like vouchers, divert public money away from public schools and towards private schools that don’t need it. Since these schools are unregulated, they can then take advantage of this subsidy by raising tuition.
8) Bigger picture: proponents of these policies want to destroy teachers’ unions. They don’t want unions to have the power to influence minimum wage laws, labor laws, environmental laws, and spending on social welfare programs. These policies might require them to pay their workers more, or pay more in taxes.7
9) Without the protections offered by the policies pushed by unions, children will be made worse off. Their parents will make less money, which in turn hurts kids’ ability to achieve, advance in school, and realize their capabilities.8
10) “Paycheck protection” is also a part of this attack on unions. It requires union members to sign off on their dues annually, increasing the likelihood that non-paying members will free ride on the benefits provided by unions, while draining resources that unions need to counter-balance the disproportionate political influence enjoyed by employers and wealthy donors.9
For more in-depth explanations of the problems with charter schools outlined above, see Gordon Lafer’s book The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time.
We should recognize these policies for what they are: a scam. Rather than destroy public education, we should provide schools with more resources, raise teachers’ salaries, and work to eradicate poverty. We should also dismantle the system that produces the type of legislation recently proposed by West Virginia Republicans. The only way to do this is to limit the corrupting influence of money on our political system.