In the late 1980s, the charter idea was brand new. AFT President Albert Shanker thought that charter schools would develop innovative ways to help the students who struggled the most in schools. He envisioned charter schools as “research and development schools” that would learn new ways of reaching the most disaffected and turned off students. He saw them as laboratories created by teachers that would first get the permission of the entire school staff at a regular public school, then get the endorsement of the local school board. In his vision, charter schools would be part of the public school system, cooperating with public schools to share whatever they learned. He also saw them as unionized schools. He imagined them getting a charter for 3-5 years, showing what they learned, then being reabsorbed into the regular public schools if they had finished their mission.

His vision did not include for-profit charter schools. He imagined collaboration between public schools and charter schools, not competition. He did not imagine charter schools run by private corporations. He did not imagine charter schools as privately managed schools run by corporations, chains, or non-educators.

When he realized that the charter idea had been corrupted by privatizers and that they had become a means of breaking teachers’ unions, he turned against charters and concluded that they were no different from vouchers. To Al Shanker, they had turned into a first step on the road to privatizing public education.

Back before the disillusionment set in, the Clinton administration authorized a federal Charter Schools Program to fund the opening of new charter schools; federal dollars were needed to jumpstart more charter schools. At its inception in 1994, the new program had a few million dollars. At the time, there were only a few hundred charter schools in the nation.

Since 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program has grown to a yearly expenditure of $440 million under the astute encouragement of the charter lobby, but between one-third and 40% of the charters funded by the federal government either never open at all or close within a couple of years. The number of failed federally funded charters has grown even larger in the past few years, as Carol Burris’s letter below documents (also see here and here.)

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are now nearly 8,000 charter schools in the nation, enrolling 7.5% of all public school students. (Of course, opinions are sharply divided about whether charter schools are “public” schools, since they are not overseen by elected school boards and court decisions usually rule that charters, unlike public schools, are “not state actors.”)

The time has come to ask, why is the federal government still paying to launch new charter schools? The charter sector seems to be multiplying quite well without federal aid. It is now typical for charter schools to accept not the neediest students, but the most promising ones. They drain students and resources from the public schools, which enroll nearly 90% of students. With so many deep-pocketed backers in the philanthropic sector and on Wall Stree (Walton, Gates, Bloomberg, and a never of hedge funders)t, why do new charters need federal aid?

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, recently wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten, and Deputy Assistant Adam Schott, calling on the US. Department of Education to stop funding the federal Charter Schools Program.

I ask you, dear readers, to send a similar letter to urge the end to funding a failed federal program that is no longer necessary, if it ever was.

Here is Carol Burris’s letter:

Secretary Miguel Cardona (

Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten (

Deputy Assistant Adam Schott (

Dear Secretary Cardona, Deputy Secretary Marten, and Deputy Assistant Schott:

On behalf of the 350,000 Network for Public Education members, I am writing to ask that you do not fund the Federal Charter School Programs in the FY 2024 budget. Here are the reasons why.

First, enrollment in charter schools between 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 declined by 5,323 students. That decline was identified using NCES data. The “surge” in charter enrollment was predominantly in low-quality online schools during the prior year. The need for more charter schools is not there. 

Second, a recent program audit by the Department’s Office of the Inspector General report found that of the grants issued between 2013 and 2016, only 51% of the schools promised by CSP recipients opened or expanded. 

Third, there has not been an opportunity to find out whether or not the new regulations are, in fact, being properly implemented by the State Entities and the CMOs. 

The nearly half-billion dollars saved can be used to reduce the budget deficit or, better yet, to fund our public schools.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email, for the courage to withstand the pressures to back down on the new regulations, and for all that you do for our children every day.

Carol Burris

Executive Director

The Network for Public Education