The charter school movement has become a complex, controversial, and significant phenomenon in American education today. In Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake? Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine write with a sense of urgency about the development of charter schools within the broader social trend toward privatizing public institutions, including public housing, welfare, libraries, and prisons. According to Fabricant and Fine, the movement toward a market-driven public sphere reflects the nation’s weakening “commitments to shared fates, democratic participation, concerns for equity, and deep accountability” (p. 1). Concerned with the future of democracy and motivated by the question of what public means, the authors scrutinize the charter movement. Their imaginative investigation reveals the intricate network of decisions—visible or invisible—and consequences—intended or unintended—that have created the current charter school landscape.

The first half of the book problematizes the political success of charter reform. Fabricant and Fine introduce the readers to the complex landscape of the charter movement, lay out its promises, and, finally, pose evidence to suggest how these schools have failed to fulfill its promises. The question thus becomes, Why has the charter movement enjoyed such political success? In the second half of the book, the authors begin by analyzing the interlocking economic, political, and social forces underpinning the charter movement. The movement’s development, they suggest, is simultaneously associated with the deregulation of public education. Three cases from three different cities (Chicago, New Orleans, New York) illustrate how the seemingly well-intended charter movement could actually exacerbate the poor education conditions for students with the greatest need. The book concludes with a call for a genuine commitment to “preserving a racially and economically just public sphere and larger democracy” (p. 130).

One of the highlights of the book is the preface written by Deborah Meier, who reflects on her experience as an advocate for the small schools movement. This echoes nicely with Fabricant and Fine’s depiction of the origins of the charter school movement, represented by the work of progressive educators such as Meier who sought to carve out spaces for experimentation beyond traditional mainstream school structures and, ultimately, to create better public education for all. Fabricant and Fine argue that although charter schools first arose out of educator and union initiatives, the movement has evolved into a campaign to “dismantle and decentralize” (p. 4) public education.

Despite their criticisms of charter schools, the authors acknowledge that the landscape is complex, and they make it clear that their concerns are regarding the implementation of charter schools as an aggregate social trend, as opposed to a critique of charters as individual schools. They don’t deny that there are exemplary charter schools; the question for Fabricant and Fine is whether these exemplary schools amount to sufficient evidence to influence public policies. They provide the example of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which tethers federal funding to the lifting of caps for charter schools. They ask: Is this a legitimate policy decision? What is it about charters that attract such attention, support, and trust?

In chapter 2, the authors address the latter question, introducing several possible explanations for the popularity of the movement. The first deliberation is on how charters are responding to a nation facing economic decline. Public anxiety over poor student performance on international tests is exacerbated in this economic climate; as a result, test scores and failing schools have to be fixed to secure the status of the nation as an economic leader. Second, there is growing frustration with the quality of public education, especially in communities of color. Charter schools “promise safer, elite-supported forms of education that will lead to more-successful career trajectories” (p. 34) for a small number of poor students of color. It is also promised that the success and innovation of charter schools will extend to and improve public education and therefore benefit all students. Financial and political interests represent significant but perhaps less visible factors. Those who are interested in opening up the public sector to market forces see charters as opportunities to advance their political and/or ideological agendas. For example, the authors quote Moscowitz, a “charter school entrepreneur,” who concerns herself not only with having “market share” but also with fundamentally changing “the rules of the game” (p. 27). Of course, even within the fabric of such incentives, Fabricant and Fine note that charter schools have many dedicated educators who seek to battle educational inequality and bring about meaningful change in students’ lives and communities.

Is there convincing evidence behind the widespread support of the charter movement? Referring to several influential studies on the effect of charter schools on education outcomes in chapter 3, Fabricant and Fine’s answer is no. Student test scores in charter schools, for example, considered in aggregate, are no better than those in public schools, despite the fact that public schools enroll more English language learners and students with disabilities and that charters tend to have lower retention and completion rates. Additionally, besides its mediocre effect on test scores, which is at best only a partial indicator of student performance, charter schools fail to have a more positive effect on education equity, parental engagement, teacher quality and retention, and educational innovation.

The authors posit that despite high-profile scrutiny of charter schools, many facts about these schools remain unknown to the public. Whereas charters’ sense of public accountability has been primarily based on student test performance, this specific emphasis has only obscured the reality of how people do what they do in the name of striving for a better education for all. The three city cases discussed by Fabricant and Fine illustrate and uncover the moment of naming a crisis, either based on the schools’ test performance or due to natural disaster, and the subsequent “educational dispossession” carried out in secrecy. The consequences of these processes include students no longer being permitted to attend school in their own neighborhoods and parents and community members being pushed out of the decision-making process.

The book concludes with a discussion of two exemplary schools, one a charter school and the other a traditional public school. Both operations are based on democratic participation and the involvement of community members in developing genuine innovations that grow out of the resources and needs of the community. In offering these examples, Fabricant and Fine emphasize that they do not oppose individual charters, a fact that they acknowledge from the beginning; indeed, they maintain that there are good charter schools. What invites scrutiny is the tendency to make public policies that rely on too little evidence; what invites criticism is the weakening of our shared commitment to working together to create change for all; what invites skepticism is the lack of transparency and therefore accountability for charter schools.