Charter schools have been taking it on the chin lately. Teacher strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland made charter schools a point of contention; new legislation in Washington, D.C. demands the same transparency of charters required of public schools; and charter industry-backed candidates have been defeated in recent elections in New York and elsewhere.

It’s not that people don’t have the right to choose a charter school. But they don’t have the right to expect others to pay for that choice.

The charter industry has responded with a defensive strategy that includes using testimonials from charter school parents and teachers defending “their” charter against “unfair” attacks.

It’s time to talk about “charter school privilege.” That’s the privilege that allows some of us to choose a charter school and to deny how that choice arises from an educational system characterized by racial, financial, and educational inequality and injustice. The groups, persons, and conditions that have made charter schools possible are also the groups, persons, and conditions that have weakened many traditional public schools, and exacerbated problems that further lead more parents to move their children to charters.

It’s not that people don’t have the right to choose a charter school. But we all need to be aware of the costs of that choice.

Some 90 percent of U.S. children attend traditional public schools supported by tax dollars. At a time when those dollars are scarce for many public institutions, the case for publicly funding a parallel school system that competes with public schools seems shaky at best.

Accepting charter school privilege means being aware of how a decision to join a charter impacts students, teachers, and parents at traditional public schools. It means understanding that supporting a charter may be siphoning away resources, including local control, and may be generating profit for persons with no ties to your community at all.

Having charter school privilege means knowing how attending an individual charter school undermines public education in general.

For instance, some 25 percent of all charter school teachers in Michigan are not certified in the area in which they are teaching, in direct violation of state education law. Only 77 percent of charter school teachers are certified in at least one subject, compared with 97 percent of teachers in traditional public schools. In many parts of the country, charter school teachers make significantly less than their peers who work in traditional public schools. Meanwhile, charter administrators make more than their traditional public school counterparts.

In addition, charters tend to serve the privileged by being unevenly accessible to and supportive of students with diverse needs. An analysis of seven studies of the KIPP charter school chain revealed that while students performed well overall, according to the report, “student attrition is high and seemingly selective. Those who leave KIPP tend to have been performing less well.”

The implementation of special education services at charters can be highly problematic. A teacher at Harlem Success Academy, told New York magazine, “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” claiming that children with discipline challenges really only have maturity issues. Harlem Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz has said her schools are “not a social-service agency.”

“Starlee Coleman, CEO of the Texas Charter Schools Association, insists that charter schools should have the right to exclude students they don’t want,” Diane Ravitch reports. She goes on to thank Texas Representative Gina Hinojosa for introducing “a bill proposing that charters act like public schools if they want to be public schools and serve all kinds of students, not just those who are easiest and cheapest to educate.”

Charter school privilege is also how some students can more successfully navigate bizarre uniform rules, including restrictions on certain types of haircuts, like the braids of a 5-year-old.

Just because a specific charter school doesn’t do all of the awful things that others do, does not mean the system is neutral, or that charter competition somehow improves public education. It does not.

How each one of us responds to charter privilege is important. It says a lot about whether we uphold a system of privilege or a system striving for the common good. And it reflects whether we perpetuate privilege, or fight for policies that support high quality, accessible public schools for all students everywhere.

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