Charter Schools: The New Private Prisons?

A new report from the Justice Department recommends the suspension of contracts for private prisons, effective immediately. In explaining the justification for this decision, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates concluded that "the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government."

Teachers and those who have observed the impact of the corporate education reform agenda on public education over the last decade or so may notice some striking similarities between the findings of this Justice Department report and the explosion of the charter school industry in our country. As with the private prison scenario, the explosion of charter schools in the last decade has created parallel school systems--both allegedly public, but fighting for limited resources, and competing on an uneven playing field.

As my friend, Steven Singer, says: "In Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to have 'separate but equal' schools, because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal. Having two parallel systems of education makes it too easy to provide more resources to some kids and less to others."


Initially proposed in the 1970s as a "laboratory in innovation" for pedagogical practices, and even embraced by AFT President Albert Shanker in 1988, charter schools were intended to function as incubators for innovative teaching techniques, strategies and policies.


Today, the experiment has been co-opted in many states by "for-profit" charter school management companies, such as, which was supported by the investments of convicted felon Michael Milken. These for-profit networks are characterized by schools staffed with uncertified, lowly-paid, alternatively-prepared short-term faculty, many of whom are ill-equipped to handle the duties of teaching. These teachers are expected to deliver scripted lessons from canned curriculums, and follow a "teach to the test" approach controlled by "no-excuses" behavior management strategies that result in a joyless educational experience marked by high rates of student suspension, especially among students of color. It is little wonder that many of these charter schools, and their hi-tech cousins, so-called "virtual charter schools," are referred to as "drop-out factories."


Consider the following chilling parallels between charters and private prisons:

  • Private prisons house 12% of inmates nationally
  • Charter schools enroll 6% of students nationally
  • Private prisons are not locally managed or controlled
  • Charter schools are not locally managed or controlled
  • Private prisons do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources as government-managed correctional facilities
  • Charter schools do not provide the same level of educational services, programs and resources (i.e., special education, music, art, library, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses) as public schools
  • Private prisons are not subject to the same level or degree of regulation and oversight as government correctional facilities
  • Charter schools are not subject to the same level or degree of regulation and oversight as public schools
  • Privately contracted prisons reported more incidents of inmate contraband, higher rates of assaults and more uses of force than facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • Charter schools, like Success Academy and KIPP, have been reported as having more incidents of student suspensions, higher rates of student misbehavior due to draconian behavior policies and expectations, and troubling incidents of teacher abuse ( than the public schools in their communities

In light of their investigation, the federal Justice Department has now determined that their experiment in the use of private prisons has been a dismal, dangerous failure, and is taking immediate steps to correct the situation. Not surprisingly, the contractors running these prisons are pushing back against the decision: "Scott Marquardt, president of Management and Training Corporation, wrote that comparing Bureau of Prisons facilities to privately operated ones was 'comparing apples and oranges.' He generally disputed the inspector general’s report." 


Mr. Marquardt's comments echo the response from Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz in February of 2016, after allegations of teacher abuse at one of her schools in NYC (captured on video)--rather than taking responsibility for the incident or suggesting possible solutions to make sure similar incidents would not happen again, Ms. Moskowitz defended the teacher and cast aspersions on the motivations of the assistant teacher who had recorded the video of the event: “This video proves utterly nothing but that a teacher in one of our 700 classrooms, on a day more than a year ago, got frustrated and spoke harshly to her students.”


Criminal justice experts are applauding the Justice Department's decision to suspend their use of private prisons. Marc Maurer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, calls the decision a "major milestone in the movement away from mass incarceration...It has been a stain on our democracy to permit profit-making entities to be handed the responsibility of making determinations of individual liberty," said Mauer. "Today's action moves us closer to a moment when government can once again assume this important responsibility."

Teachers, parents, and supporters of public education can only hope that a corresponding statement is in the future for our profession, and that our national "experiment" in diverting public funds to private schools is coming to a similar, and much needed, end.


Write a comment

Comments: 14
  • #1

    steven palmore (Friday, 19 August 2016 21:55)

    I ama a retired public school teacher and I know for fact that you are right

  • #2

    Lisa B (Saturday, 20 August 2016 15:55)

    KIPP = kids in prison programs.

    They take poor children with brown skin and enslave them, force them to obey the white man with all the wealth. These are sad times. Is it any wonder why over the past 10-15 years, the urban youth have seemed to become an angry group of humans? Forced to live in poverty, forced to obey in school, not allowed to think or express feelings and thoughts, forced to learn what the wealthy elite think you need to know.

  • #3

    Mitch (Saturday, 20 August 2016 17:50)

    Thanks, Steven.

  • #4

    Mitch (Saturday, 20 August 2016 17:51)

    I've had students take jobs in KIPP schools and leave by January--they just could not treat students that way. Or watch others do it.

  • #5

    denise.mueller (Sunday, 21 August 2016 10:51)

    This is such a good analogy. I taught in two separate Philadelphia for-profit charter schools in special education. One was a better learning environment, but both were bare bones staff, no adequate classrooms and more like warehousing students who need the best instruction. It was smoke and mirrors during state inspections.

  • #6

    jim wells (Sunday, 21 August 2016 21:28)

    quite possibly the dumbest, ill informed article I have ever read.....must be someone the the education who got there for the usual reason...they couldnt handle any other major........assuming they got past high school

  • #7

    Mitch (Monday, 22 August 2016 11:36)

    Thanks for the feedback, Jim.

  • #8

    Chris (Tuesday, 23 August 2016)

    More blanket, anti-charter school hysteria and fear based on a small subset of the schools (for-profit). You need to evaluate each charter school individually, including it's relation to the public school systems against or with which it operates, the regulations it must adhere to passed down from the state and various levels of education boards, and the success rates of its students. Generalizing all charter schools this way is just as bad as generalizing all public schools as bad based on the evidence of our national performance against other nations.

  • #9

    Mitch (Tuesday, 23 August 2016 16:54)

    Thanks for the feedback, Chris. Actually, there's not much difference between for-profit and other charters nowadays--they all divert money from public schools.

    All charters share certain governance characteristics that make them unsuitable partners in the educational ecosystem. I agree that an in-depth analysis of each individual charter school would provide a more accurate and detailed picture of the charter industry--but would be happy with more transparency and oversight in general for charters.

  • #10

    Mitch (Tuesday, 23 August 2016 18:29)

    Just FYI, Chris: In Michigan, where I live, 79% of the charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, so it's not a "small subset of the schools"--it's the majority of schools.

  • #11

    Jo (Thursday, 25 August 2016 12:12)

    As a teacher who experienced the charter school curriculum, I can tell you how corrupt the system is. To include making teaching staff provide false information to the state Board of Education as to the support they received in the overcrowded classrooms here in Florida.

  • #12

    Mitch (Thursday, 25 August 2016 12:56)

    Thanks, Jo. Hang in there--I think the tide is turning...

  • #13

    GlenThePlumber (Thursday, 08 September 2016 09:15)

    Great Article ...just one nit to pick. The line between 'non-profit' and 'for-profit' is just a facade.

    Rupert Murdoch explains why the investor class is so interested in charter schools, "How do hedge funds benefit by supporting charter schools? Rocketship is a non-profit charter school in California and other states. Non-profits can't make a profit, so what's the big deal? Well, Rocketship is required to purchase and use the software of the company founded by one of Rocketship's founders. Is that software the best? Arbitrary, perhaps. Does the use of technology in schools improved students performance? Lots of evidence from many countries says 'no'. The second way to make money is to have an outside company purchase land and construct a school for you, and then charge you rent. Perhaps a lot of rent. How does one operate a charter with these burdens? Use Teach for America 'teachers'. They are generally new college graduates and have about 6 weeks of training to be classroom teachers. They are paid, but generally less than fully trained teachers and are required to put in long, long hours. Some go on to be 'real' teachers, but most put in their 2 years and go on with their lives. Even classically trained teachers are generally at their weakest during the first two years of teaching. How do you get good results? Drill, drill, drill on passing the bubble test in only two subjects – math and reading. What are they going to do with possibly more deep and meaningful Common Core Testing? Well, one stategy may be to repeatedly suspend or expel students who may do poorly on the test. But why would hedge funds care about charter schools? As they are funded with public dollars, they are 'recession-proof investments'."

  • #14

    Mitch (Thursday, 08 September 2016 09:24)

    Glen, thanks for your comment--and I agree completely. The lines between for-profit and other forms of charters are largely arbitrary, and pretty meaningless.

    Great point! Thanks.