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Milking Public Education

A Teach For America teacher grows leery of the role of charter schools.

The building stood facing me, the windows staring ahead like hundreds of scrutinizing eyes. It was larger than I thought it would be.

I looked around as I dug my hands into my pockets, struggling to retain heat. Across the street was a public housing development that appeared to be shut down: broken doors, smashed windows, an overall sense of abandonment. To the left was a park, buried under feet of snow.

Looking the other direction, I could see Chicago’s skyline, beginning to shine brilliantly with the rising sun. This was the public charter school where I would be teaching for the next two years of my life, beginning in just a few short months. I took a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and walked inside.

As an incoming Teach For America corps member, it’s my responsibility to understand the school I’ll be teaching at and the community surrounding it. My research of the charter school system has fascinated and perplexed me.

Before I’ve even set foot in the classroom, I’m already growing leery of the role corporations are playing in charter-dominated school systems. Are these relationships with for-profit entities benefiting or hindering students and their educational journeys?

In 1992, the first charter school opened in Minnesota. By 2001, 2,000 charter schools were educating almost 500,000 students. Population size has since quadrupled, with more than 2 million children enrolled at about 5,700 charter schools.

Compared to the 50 million students attending traditional and non-charter magnet public schools, this number may seem inconsequential. While there’s plenty of controversy and debate over the quality of education provided by these different types of schools, many policymakers are positioning charters as a cure for what ails many American schools.

The National Education Association refers to charter schools as “educational reform mechanisms,” with innovative teaching and learning practices that can lead to improvements in traditional public school education. But why should for-profit companies be entrusted with spearheading so much of this experimentation with new education approaches?

Traditional public schools may accept donations from individuals and organizations, but companies interact more often with charter schools because there’s less red tape to cut through. Ultimately, charters receive almost triple the amount of money from private sources than traditional public schools.

Developing relationships with the community is important for all schools. But when these partners use manipulation to reap profits, corruption creeps in. In fact, as charter schools build these relationships with private enterprise, transparency diminishes. In numerous states, over half of charter schools failed to report any of the private revenue they were raking in.

Corporations primarily build profits in this relationship through tax credits. The New Markets Tax Credit imposed during the Clinton presidency allows private companies to receive up to a 39 percent tax credit if they invest in charters. This loophole would allow a lending company to double its profits in only seven years.

In addition to that tax credit, corporations suck funds from charters with a caveat. Some companies will only donate to charters if those schools purchase the company’s products.

Diann Woodard, the president of the American Federation of School Administrators warned last year that these contracts are easier to negotiate with charter schools, “where they are often uninhibited by public schools’ procurement rules and standards requiring a demonstrable, educational need for technology.”

In other words, these charters may not even need to replace the technologies they already have. Rather, they spend the public funds allocated to them on these unnecessary purchases.

While the mission of charter schools doesn’t inherently advocate this corporate takeover, these loopholes have allowed the private sector to siphon a growing share of public education funding.

As I prepare to teach in a charter school for the next two years, I can’t help but wonder how this trend can be reversed. I’m sure I speak for most people when I say equal educational opportunity is something to strive for.

But how can we achieve this when corporations are tightening their grip on charter schools and slurping up public funds?

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