President-elect Donald Trump is a strong proponent of “school choice.” In other words, he wants federal dollars to be directed to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.
His pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, oversaw the expansion of charters in Detroit. That’s not a surprise considering Trump has called public schools “failing government schools” and made a campaign pledge to provide $20 billion to low-income students to enter private or charter schools.
Support for charters is not a partisan issue. President Barack Obama gave charter schools a big push during his eight years in office. So, what does the history of charter schools tell us about their effect on students and student achievement?
Morning Shift talked with Diane Ravitch, an education historian, analyst and professor of education at New York University. Ravitch is no fan of charter schools. Her most recent book is The Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. She has a piece in the Dec. 8 issue of the New York Review of Books where she looks at the history of school privatization in the United States and its effects.
On Trump selecting DeVos as education secretary
Ravitch: The hoax is that they say they’re reformers. Betsy DeVos claims she’s a reformer but actually she’s a privatizer. She wants everybody to be able to take their money and go to a religious school—that’s her first choice.
Betsy and her husband Dick DeVos engineered a referendum in 2000 in Michigan on vouchers that failed. Then they began putting their money into charter schools. They have also put their money into states across the country through their different political PACs to elect people who are opposed to public education.
What makes DeVos an unusually bad choice for the U.S. secretary of education is that she’s a lobbyist. She’s not an expert in education. Since 1980, most secretaries have been governors with experiences dealing with budgets and understanding that 90 percent of the kids in their state go to public school — not to charters or vouchers.
But she’s an advocate that comes in with hostility to public education. She invests money into election campaigns across the country to defeat people who support their public schools, so it’s a bizarre choice to say the least.
On the effects of charters on communities and school districts
Ravitch: The problem with choice is that it destroys communities, and the biggest problem with choice is that it destroys a public institution. [A public schools is] a democratic institution under public control and it should be supported by everyone in the community — even those without children or whose children are grown. School choice was the battle cry of Southern segregationists.
To me the worst thing about school choice is that it changes the role of a parent from a citizen to a consumer. And most people are not in a position to say they’re going to go shopping for a school. Oftentimes they don’t have enough education and if they do, they think the best school won’t accept them because it’s in a very affluent neighborhood and it’s full of kids anyway. So their choices are going to be either to go to the underfunded neighborhood school or try to get into a charter school, which will accept them only if they have the potential to have high scores.
On neighborhood schools vs. charter schools
Ravitch: Particularly if it’s in affluent neighborhoods, schools seem to be great because kids are coming from homes that produce high test scores, and the kids have been exposed to books and tutors and all the rest of it. But they don’t have empty spaces.
So you’re given a choice of a brand new charter school with no track record or your neighborhood school, and then the neighborhood school begins to lose funding when the charter schools open. We should aim to have every school, no matter what neighborhood it’s in, to be a good school.
On how charter schools make money off of real estate
Ravitch: Some charter schools are not themselves for-profit but it’s run by an educational management organization that is a for-profit. There are chains of EMOs that operate for-profit. The profit is in real estate.
What happens typically is that the operator will buy a piece of property or building, renovate it and then rent the building to another part of that corporation’s operation, and they’ll charge an exorbitant rent.
If the charter school should close for lack of enrollment or otherwise, the charter school company owns the building and they can then sell it back. People are making millions of dollars from taxpayer funding and this is not why we pay taxes; not to enrich a charter corporation.
Some people clearly aren’t driven by profit because they were already billionaires. For example: Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the play button above to listen to the full interview.