The Fallacy of the Charter School “Movement”

It is no secret that the number of charter schools in the US has been rapidly increasing. The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991; today there are over 5,600 charter schools serving over two million students. And with decreasing municipal revenues and the impressive success of many charters across the country, that growth should continue.

Unsurprisingly, charter schools have become a common target of supporters of the educational status quo, particularly teachers’ unions. Charters, they claim, directly attack the public education system by draining resources from “real” public schools. The dangerous and malicious charter school “movement” needs to be stopped.

I’m not going to counter that critique of charters here; that is for another post. But it is worth pointing out that referring to charters as a “movement” is a fallacious oversimplification that unfairly presents charter schools as an opponent, rather than a component, of public education. 

The reality is that charter schools in the US are incredibly diverse from one another, and hardly synchronized or connected. According to the National Education Association, charter schools are “publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school’s charter.” Charters can differ from other public schools by emphasizing foreign languages and cultures, prioritizing certain areas of study, or using different instructional models. Though charter approval works differently in different areas, the basic idea is that someone in the community suggests that it would benefit the kids in the community to have an additional public school option; the specific proposal must then be approved by a representative body in the community. Of course, applications for charters are routinely rejected as well.

What is NOT happening, despite what charter opponents may have you believe, is some kind of coordinated attack on public education by charter school advocates. There is no concerted “movement”; it is just becoming more common–and rightfully so–for active citizens to realize that kids in their community are not receiving the education they deserve. Lumping charter schools together may make for easier sound bites, but that doesn’t make it valid. We should call the description of charter school expansion as a “movement” what it is: a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory intended to manipulate public opinion to preserve a broken status quo.

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