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A top-down plan for charters’ growth

[This editorial originally appeared in the June 26 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Over the last 15 years, as the number of charter schools around the country has multiplied, the movement has increasingly become dominated by charter school networks such as Success Academy and Uncommon Schools as opposed to independent or community-based charter schools.

That is no accident.

Researchers have found that large foundations are deliberately fueling the growth of charter school networks, also known as charter school management organizations. One recent study, described in our Research Shows column on page 17, looked closely at the explosive growth of charter school networks in California from 1999 to 2005. It found that four foundations had worked in concert to drive that growth: the Gates, Broad and Walton Family foundations along with the New Schools Venture Fund.

The Walton, Gates and Broad foundations are also the largest funders of charter school networks nationally.

Why would these foundations want to fund networks rather than independent schools? A main reason is that networks can grow. An explicit demand of the foundations in the California study was for networks to add more schools fast. Charter school leaders interviewed for the study said foundations told them that they would receive funding only if they had a plan to scale up.

Some of the charter organizations aimed to grow big enough within a particular school district to challenge that school system. One said that scaling up was akin to having an effect on “public education the way FedEx affected the Post Office.”

We know that the ultimate goal of many in the corporate education reform movement is to privatize public education. These foundations and the other billionaire funders of the corporate reform movement see building up charter school networks as a pivotal part of that work.

We must call out the orchestrated, top-down growth of the charter school movement. Studies show that charters perform no better and often worse than public schools. And an unbridled and unregulated increase in charter schools poses a threat to public education and our democracy.