Who Controls Our Schools? How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and Enriching the Charter School Industry


(Editor's note: AlterNet has covered the school privatization story in great detail. Over time, we became alarmed at what we were seeing. The Independent Media Institute, AlterNet’s parent organization, has published an ebook, Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Educationthe full text of which you can access for free online with this link. What follows is a summary of its findings and recommendations.)

The Problem

America’s public schools, which over the 20th century came to embrace the promise of equal opportunity for all children, are at a historic crossroad. Once the heart of our democracy and a bastion of local accountability, our K-12 schools now bear the scars of a nearly 25-year assault from a cadre of very wealthy ideological reformers who seek to privately run them using taxpayers' funds. Their most popular tool to dismantle this public good? Charter public schools, especially those run by corporate franchises, which now educate millions of students.

The growth of charter schools nationwide (whose numbers have increased exponentially since 2000) would not have occurred without a handful of heirs to the world’s largest family fortunes and other billionaires directing their tax-exempt foundations using their wealth to remake public schools in a corporate image. Critics have called it a virtual conspiracy while charter school promoters see themselves as K-12 education’s saviors. Either way, the result has been the creation of a little-understood, parallel, privatized system within the public school system.

Charters often reject the most difficult-to-educate students (special needs, English-language learners, etc.), who are shunted to struggling, underfunded traditional K-12 public schools. The impacts have not just been academic, though, in many instances, charters have failed to fare any better on standardized tests than the schools they’ve supplanted. A charter establishment has emerged and has ushered in changes in law and governance that are fundamentally anti-democratic, from operating secretively and without transparency to sidelining locally elected school boards. Bringing the profit motive into non-commercial public education has created a business model that is frequently prone to nepotism, self-dealing and corporate enrichment, diverting multi-millions from classrooms into private hands.

The billionaire-led large-scale privatization of America’s public schools has become central to the education landscape in many cities across the nation. The charter industry, dominated by chains and franchises with national ambitions, but also filled with players whose income and careers benefit as charters grow, shows few signs of slowing down. Few Americans understand how dire the consequences of a wholesale privatization of our public education might be—or how close we are to seeing just such a fate set into motion. Recent high-profile criticism, such as television host John Oliver’s scathing but comedic profile that went viral, and the NAACP’s national board of director calling for a national moratorium for charter expansion, have brought media attention but have not slowed the industry growth. This fall, Georgia and Massachusetts voters will consider ballot measures to accelerate the takeover of traditional public schools. Opposition is mounting in both states.

The Independent Media Institute reviewed an extensive body of criticism of charter schools—including academic research, government accountability reports, investigative reporting in top newspapers and websites across the country, and commentary by dozens of experts, parents, teachers and public school administrators. We have synthesized the main findings for a wider audience to spark a more robust conversation about the vast impact that privatized charter schools are imposing on American public education. The resulting ebook is an effort to unmask the politically powerful yet deeply troubling juggernaut behind many charter operations, their impact on public education as a democratic institution, and their impact on America’s children and communities.

The Findings

This ebook lays out 10 focal points that, taken together, show the roots, scope and stakes involved in privatizing traditional K-12 public education. This history begins decades ago as John Walton, a billionaire heir to the Walmart fortune, and associates at libertarian think tanks eyed a hijacking of taxpayer subsidies and makeover of traditional public schools. Their ideology stemmed from a shared belief that corporate values, private sector efficiencies and deregulation were a better template to create and manage public schools. Deploying their vast dollars, they entered the public policy arena by extolling the virtues of privatization and demonizing teacher unions, teacher training, and education bureaucracies (whose roots were to prevent corruption), and they perpetuated the myth that public schools were failing. As state and federal lawmakers grappled with anti-poverty programs, the sophisticated lobbying and misinformation campaigns by these education privateers led to legally sanctioning deregulated and experimental public schools.

Those early ventures were locally run schools collaboratively created by parents, teachers, school boards and district administrators. But a new Montessori school bears little resemblance to charter schools today, particularly the franchises and chains dominating the field, operating secretively and without local accountability and democratic input, and using a business model prone to corruption and enrichment—all at taxpayer expense. One-quarter century ago, charter proponents never envisioned school founders lining their pockets, shutting down democratically elected school boards, increasing segregation in low-income communities, treating classrooms as test markets, and using local school district bonding authority for real estate speculation. All of that has repeatedly happened, yet elected lawmakers and the mass media typically did not want to question these super wealthy individuals and their philanthropic institutions pushing privatization, especially as the philanthropists and their grantees or contractors contributed to their electoral campaigns and relentlessly portrayed themselves as children-centered activists. Today, however, there is a nationwide track record that shows public education is imperiled.

This ebook looks beyond the debate about the impact of charters on academics to explain and document how a cadre of billionaires, their family foundations, grantees, entrepreneurs and like-minded colleagues have created a parallel world of privatized education within America’s K-12 school system. These wealthy individuals did not direct their philanthropy and underwriting in private schools; they sought and are achieving a takeover of traditional public education.     

This narrative includes but is not limited to:

•   The Dangerous Privatization Ideology Driving the Charter School Movement.

•   The Impact and Influences of Billionaire Funders on the Movement.

•   State Charter Authorities and the End of Local Democratic Control of Schools.

•   Self-dealing and Corruption: Why They Are Now Endemic to the Movement.

•   How Industry—Not the Public—Drives the Expansion of Charters.

•   How the Charter Industry Usurps State and Federal Regulators.

Our recommendations for addressing the complex and anti-democratic nature of charter schools draw on suggestions from traditional public school advocates who seek to restore democratic governance and fiscal accountability to operating charters. They include calls for:

•   A national moratorium on charter school expansion;

•   The restoration of locally elected school board oversight;

•   Required transparency in charter school proceedings and management;

•   A prohibition on charters using enrollment, registration, and disciplinary procedures that directly or indirectly exclude or discourage certain student populations from attending the school or maintaining their enrollment;

•   A nationwide ban on online K-12 charter schools.

The charter establishment can be expected to vigorously oppose all of these policies, as they have succeeded in carving out a separate and unequal system of legal and financial privileges that benefit so many players across their industry. However, what the government awards to charters can be taken away or modified, especially when there are systemic abuses of the taxpayer resources and there is no public outcry demanding public schools be privatized.

Nothing is preventing the charter industry and its billionaire backers from opening and supporting traditional private schools. If they want to use taxpayer funds, however, it is unreasonable for them to expect to be perpetually freed of democratic governance and accountability.

This has been a report based on the book Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education (The Independent Media Organization, 2016). Click here to read the ebook for free.

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