The crude and cruel epithets dribbling from the Oval Office these days are a jarring reflection of the Trump administration’s relentless hostility to civil rights. But it may be that the president’s most pernicious attacks on communities of color isn’t happening in the West Wing but unfolding day-to-day in our children’s classrooms. Under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, charter schools are set to dramatically expand as a vehicle for Trump’s agenda of resegregating and privatizing public education. But charters are also becoming a site of resistance to the administration’s effort to unleash forces of the free market to dismantle educational rights.
In a climate of roiling racial polarization, the NAACP has called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools. It’s not just to oppose Trump’s influence. It’s a bottom-up revolt against years of corporatization of public education.
The NAACP’s recent resolution and Plan of Action on charter schools challenges the market-driven framework of mainstream education reform. The group criticizes charters—public institutions managed by corporations with minimal regulation—as both unethical and socially damaging. A new report, drawn from public hearings conducted nationwide, affirmed an overall shift among liberals away from support of charters and similar pro-privatization school reforms. Civil-rights groups, teachers’ unions, and parents have warned that further expanding the charter sector would fuel institutionalized segregation, particularly under Trump’s shadow: The administration’s drive to commercialize K12 education threatens to deepen the private sector’s reach into under-resourced school districts.
The question of who controls schools, and for whose benefit, is at the core of the debate. “[C]harter schools with privately appointed boards do not represent the public yet make decisions about how public funds are spent,” the group argues. And even when charters do offer quality educational services, increasingly scarce resources for quality schools are even more stratified by economic position and geography, which are aggravated by arbitrary or discriminatory admissions processes.
Long the darling of centrist Democrats, the promotion of charters as a market-driven solution has been bipartisan; from Silicon Valley-branded online academies to evangelical, biblically inspired kindergartens, charters have been praised by market fundamentalists on the left and right. But Carol Burris, a veteran educator and head of the Network for Public Education, points out that the erosion of support among conservatives is particularly sharp, despite their tendency to back deregulation-oriented policies.
Some of the negative sentiment may be due to general antipathy toward the Tump administration, But much of the turn, she argues, may simply be that charters have failed to deliver on their lofty promises of innovation and rescuing schools in crisis.
Years of research has shown that charters frequently fail to turn around low-performing schools. Comparative academic analysis of charter and traditional schools suggests that charters perform no better and in many cases do worse compared with traditional neighborhood schools, and often at great public cost. Moreover, a barrage of scandals involving fraud, incompetent management, and labor conflicts between teachers and unions have further dimmed the reputation of entrepreneurial approaches to school reform.
At the NAACP’s hearings on charter schools, a range of stakeholders, including teachers from both traditional schools and charters, along with parents and community activists, reached a rare consensus on the issue: Ideology aside, privatization cannot be seen as a solution in itself, and ensuring every child gets the schooling they deserve requires comprehensive public investment.
In New Orleans, law professor and rights activist Bill Quigley described the city’s massive post-Katrina charter-school system as a systematic imposition of corporate failure over already crumbling schools: “What we have is a very small group of selective schools that are not approachable by most of the people in New Orleans. They are charter schools that are reserved for the wealthy. They are reserved overwhelmingly for white children of the city of New Orleans.”
One Detroit substitute teacher recounted her experience with a district filled with charters but lacking basic resources—the district where DeVos led the privatization movement as a hard-right corporate philanthropist:
Over half of the biology textbooks are tore [sic] up. So I’m using my own resources out of my own pocket, like many of the dedicated educators for this district…. I teach the young people to aim higher than just a career as a basketball player. I want to see more investment in our young people.
“When you have schools that are run by private corps…you lose your voice,” Burris says. Although policy-making for local schools through conventional agencies is often deeply dysfunctional, “there’s a level of accountability with a school board, at least.” When traditional public schools founder, “Even if it were controlled by the mayor, at least there was a governmental body to which they could go and seek redress and even vote them out of office.” After decades of neoliberal reforms, Burris adds, people are recognizing again “that idea of community involvement, community empowerment, at a time when everybody feels alienated from government.”
Under a reactionary education regime, activists argue that more charters pose unsustainable risks for communities struggling against segregation. The promise of desegregation has been betrayed with structural disinvestment from public education in poor communities of color. Yesterday’s Jim Crow is rebranded, with promises of test score gains or free laptops, as meritocracy premised on economic segregation.
“Rather than say we need to get serious about dealing with…racially isolated neighborhoods, insufficient resources going to the schools that need it the most,” Burris says, siphoning education into corporate hands sends a message: “We can’t fix it, so we’re going to just create all of these alternatives. And kids and parents, you scramble, and see if you can get a place in them, and that’s going to solve the problem…. It doesn’t.”
As a cornerstone of the civil-rights struggle, school desegregation was about socializing a public good. Today the privatization of schools is squandering our communities’ most promising public resource, and letting precious minds go to waste.