Markets can undermine social justice aims of charter schools

Editor’s note: This guest post is by Chris Lubienski, professor of education policy at the University of Illinois, where he is director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education. He is at


Some social justice advocates are quite enthralled with the possibilities of school choice. While district and enrollment boundaries reflect segregated residential patterns in the U.S., choice allows families to select schools across these artificial barriers, eradicating an important institutional impediment to equity. Moreover, schools then must compete to attract students, just like businesses strive to attract customers.

Charter schools reflect these ideals. It’s worth remembering that some of the early adopters of this innovation were progressive educators frustrated by the disservice that district-run public schools were doing to marginalized children. Charter schools embody the advantages of choice: giving parents alternatives, creating competition with public school districts, and offering the possibility of more socially integrated education based on interest, not race or residence. Compared to, say, vouchers, charters are the choice policy most favored by liberals. (Of course, charters also are embraced by conservative market advocates.)

Since the charter movement began, there have been debates about whether charter schools represent privatization. The recent issue of the Oxford Review of Education, which focuses on privatization, education and social justice, considers such questions and the equity implications.

In the classic sense of the term, it’s difficult to argue that charter schools “privatize” public education. Unlike, say, the transfer of state-run industries to private owners in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, ownership of public schools is generally not being shifted to private hands. In fact, one could argue the opposite is happening, as some private schools have opted into the publicly funded system to become charter schools, and many families have left tuition-based private schools for “free” taxpayer-funded charter schools.

Yet it’s also difficult to ignore the large-scale shift in American educational governance. Within a few short years, large swaths of urban systems run by elected school boards have been transferred to private (for-profit and non-profit) management groups. In Los Angeles, 100,000 students are now in charter schools.  More than 1 in 3 public school students in Detroit, Kansas City and the District of Columbia now attend privately run charter schools. Policymakers are aggressively shutting down Chicago’s neighborhood public schools and inviting in private charter operators. Louisiana embraced charter schools as the primary reform model for re-making public education in post-Katrina New Orleans, where some 80 percent of students now attend charter schools. This is a remarkable record for a school model that didn’t exist 25 years ago.

So in this broader view, it would seem charters serve as a vehicle for moving governance of public education away from public control. Moreover, the charter movement is serving as the primary entry point for private investment seeking to reconfigure public education into a site for profit-making.

While reasonable people can disagree about whether this is “privatization,” the question remains as to whether the market mechanisms embodied within the charter model lead to more socially just outcomes. After all, many might be willing to accept privatization if choice and competition produce more equitable and just opportunities, especially for disadvantaged children.

However, an increasing consensus in research circles suggests charter schools may exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, the chronic inequity in America’s education system. Despite its roots as an initiative to promote more equitable outcomes, multiple studies have linked charter programs with segregation.

Typically, researchers have focused on parental choices to understand segregative patterns, noting how families often choose schools based on the demographic characteristics of other children at a school. However, as policymakers use chartering to create more competition and choice in public education, it also makes sense to consider the role of the schools themselves in contributing to greater inequities.

In fact, we’re increasingly seeing evidence that many charter schools, driven by competitive incentives, are acting like profit-seeking entities: selecting the populations they serve, where they locate, and how they market themselves. For instance:

Unfortunately, these reports on individual charter operators reflect broader trends. For instance, national data show charter schools on average serve a smaller share of students with special needs than do public schools. And despite charter schools’ theoretical potential to promote integration, their students tend to be more isolated by social characteristics, indicating they often serve as havens of segregation. Lest we simply blame parents, geographic research shows some charter operators surround but don’t locate in poorer areas, so only families with the interest and ability to get their children to the school can attend.

Yet it would also be too simplistic to simply blame charter schools. In the current reform climate, these schools are placed between conflicting goals of equity on the one hand, and, on the other, competitive pressures to attract “better” students. Because of such pressures, we should not be surprised that many charter schools are choosing the students they wish to serve. In that sense, charter schools may represent de facto privatization in function, if not in form. Too many charter schools are acting like businesses in putting their standing in the marketplace above social justice objectives when it comes to students. The most likely explanation is the market environment in which these schools operate.

So, while they may be enamored with the theoretical potential of choice, social justice advocates need to recognize that market forces can have unintended, detrimental impacts on equity.

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BY Special to NextSteps