Nearly 30 years ago, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Albert Shanker gave a speech at the National Press Club in which he outlined his pedagogical ideal: Small, independently managed schools that championed innovation and served as “educational laboratories.” He called them charter schools. As Shanker envisioned it, unionized charters would test a variety of classroom techniques and strategies; those that worked would then be replicated in schools throughout the country.
By 1991 the first charter was up and running in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the 26 years since then, the number of charters has mushroomed: by August 2017, 43 states and Washington, DC, had enrolled more than 3 million K-12 students in approximately 6,750 online and brick-and-mortar programs — a full 8 percent of school-aged kids.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools anticipates that this trend will continue, projecting that 4 million children — 10 percent of the total — will be enrolled in charters by 2020. And as is obvious, the majority of these programs are nothing like the model that Shanker envisioned: Almost none are teacher-run, independently managed or innovative. Worse, only between 10 and 12 percent are unionized.
How did this happen? As the AFT website notes, “Some leaders in the corporate education reform movement have hijacked much of the charter school industry both to profit from and undermine public education.” Indeed. In addition, the charter movement has gotten a huge financial boost from the Bill and Melinda Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, promoters of what has been dubbed “school choice.” What’s more, they have a close friend in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose budget request for the next fiscal year includes a…