The Walmarting of Education

By George Eliot Jr.

Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is an avowed school choice advocate. School choice is the Friedman, supply-side economics solution to what is seen as the failures of public schools. The government has a monopoly on education–accrediting schools, licensing the teachers, providing standardized tests to assess each state’s school performance–and this monopoly stifles innovation and performance. The answer then is to remove regulations, increase the number of school options, and then just let the invisible hand of the capitalist market steer public education.

School choice advocates are usually strong supporters of public charter schools. A charter school is ostensibly a public school, but for a number reasons they are exempt from the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools. School districts primarily receive funds from property taxes, and those funds are apportioned to schools based largely on the basis of student enrollment. Charter schools don’t receive any district funding for their facilities or properties, so rent and maintenance costs must be shouldered by the individual charter school and not the district.

The student enrollment-funding model hurts the local public school. For every student who disenrolls from their neighborhood school to attend a charter school, the neighborhood school loses money. Charter schools are particularly popular in areas low socio-economic status. Poverty and parental involvement play a much higher role in student achievement than teacher performance. Poor neighborhoods have poorer-performing schools not because of lazy teachers or common core, but because the students are spending more energy trying to meet the basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. School choice advocates ignore this fact, present their school as some kind of elite option (charter schools love to use “academy” in their names), and draw student enrollment from the already financially-struggling local school.

Because of their unique status, charter schools are also exempt from regulations regarding the licensing of teachers. Charter schools can hire anyone with a bachelor’s degree who has passed the state’s teacher content exam. They don’t have to have a teaching license. Charter schools are also notorious for using “canned” curriculum where teachers essentially read from the script of a prescribed curriculum. This is part of the reason why charter school teachers are paid so little. James Irwin Charter Schools pays teachers with a bachelor's degree a starting salary of $30,000 a year. Those with a master’s receive $32,000 a year. Both salaries are about $5,000 less than the average salary at a traditional public school.

Charter schools often boast about their performance. A cursory look at charter schools might seem to prove that their model is effective. However, charter schools again take advantage of their many exemptions. Charter schools do not have the accountability processes of public schools, so students who have behavior issues, and typically do poorly on standardized tests, are more easily expelled than they would be at a traditional public school. Charter schools also often do not have the resources to accommodate students with intellectual disabilities, so students with special needs, who also typically perform poorly on standardized tests, are not included in their performance data.

Charter schools are the Wal-Marting of education. Like Wal-Mart, they commodify the education experience through the use of pre-packaged curriculum, the hire unqualified teachers and drive down wages, and through these unscrupulous practices put competitors out of business. Unfortunately, with the school choice/Wal-Mart model everyone loses. The now woefully underfunded public school becomes a dumping ground for the students who couldn’t get into a charter, and the charter school coasts by on the merits of its canned curriculum. School choice improves nothing and impoverishes everyone involved. Louisiana has moved to an all-charter system, and they have been consistently ranked as the worst school system in the United States.

Education isn’t a commodity. Schools are not a business. Teachers are not making a product. Students are not customers.

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