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Are Charter School Public Schools? I’m Afraid Not.

In the past, I have been very careful to talk and write about “charter schools” and “traditional public schools,” the latter of which is often abbreviated TPS. I have even tended to favor others’ claims that charter schools are, in fact, public schools. But I’m afraid that I was wrong. I have tried to be more thoughtful about this question and I simply cannot find a compelling argument that they are, and can find too many that they are not.

First, let’s acknowledge what charter schools are. They are publicly financed schools that are run by private – usually nonprofit – organizations. Sometimes they are independent, and sometimes they are part of larger charter school organizations or chains.

The primary argument that charter schools are public schools is that they are paid for out of government funds. While they do get most of their budgets from tax dollars, that is not enough to render them public schools. There are many other organizations that pay for operations with public funds but are still private organizations. Defense contractors receive enormous sums of money from the government to provide design and manufacturing of weapons systems, but they remain private corporations. Blackwater provided labor, training and services to the Department of Defense and the State Department, but it remained a private organization.

If a construction firm is hired by a school district to build a school, it remains a private firm. If a new firm is formed to bid for a school construction job, and wins the project, it still remains a private firm. Even if that firm does such a good job that it wins future bids and does all the district’s construction work, it remains a private firm.

Frankly, I’ve not heard any other arguments that charter schools are public schools. Meanwhile, there are lots of ways in which they most definitely are not public schools

I think that it is pretty clear that at least some level of oversight of the day to day operations of our public agencies must rise up to our elected officials. Public agencies and offices must have some level of democratic oversight. Abuses, mismanagement and bad policy are subject to review by elected officials or those they appoint. Policies can be changed, budgets cut and/or senior personnel removed as a direct consequence of this oversight. This is quite different than contracted services. So long as the terms of the contract are met, the government cannot reach into the management of a contractor and force changes. They may try to embarrass the contractor, but they do not have authority to require changes. On the other hand, public schools are accountable to elected school boards, legislatures and/or mayors. There may be changes in who is ultimately responsible for a district, but it always is an elected official.

Charter school principals cannot be removed by elected officials. Their board members are not subject to removal by public elections. The executives of charter management organizations are not accountable to the government for their jobs.

More important, however, is the difference in moral mission. It is the responsibility of the public schools to educate every child who shows up. All children who live in a school district have a right to attend a district school. Furthermore, no public school can in good conscience “counsel out” a student. Private schools are well known to engage the practice of “counseling out” when a student does not seem to fit in or is too disruptive or the school believes that it cannot well meet that student’s needs. As the student has the public schools to fall back on, the moral import of this practice is surely debatable. But the public schools must find another placement for students whose needs they cannot meet, because they – in the form of the district – have a moral and a legal obligation to educate every child that shows up.

Charter schools do not have that obligation, either legally or morally. To the extent that many charter schools are oversubscribed, it would be difficult or impossible for them to do so. While the public schools have to cram in more students – hopefully, eventually, leading to more classrooms and even schools – charter schools only have to serve as many students as they specify. Charter schools are free to say that they do not offer support services for English language learners or autistic children, but the public schools must provide schooling for every child. Charter schools are free to “counsel out” students.

Charter school employees do not work for the government; they are not public employees. While the government has contracted with charter schools to provide a service, they do not act as the government when the provide it. Their operations are not subject to democratic or public oversight; rather their contracts (i.e. their charters) come up for review for possible extension periodically.

If you can make a more thoughtful argument about why charter schools are public schools, I would love to hear it. If you agree or disagree, please share your own thinking as to why.

[Note: I have posted a follow up piece, and the conversation has continued there.]

About our First Person series:

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