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Charter Schools Are Still Not Public Schools

Last week, I explained why I no longer think that charter schools are public schools and asked for comments from GothamSchools readers. I’ve given a lot of thought to the ideas that others have presented.

First, no one has come close to rehabilitating the argument that charter schools are public schools simply because they accept public funds. Many organizations have their operations paid for — in whole or in part — by public funds, and not all of them are public in the way that “our public schools” are. If charters are public schools, this is not why.

Second, I raised the issue of democratic accountability. To what degree do elected officials and their appointees have authority over arbitrary aspects of charter school operations and staffing? For example, years ago Mayor Bloomberg required all schools to hire parent coordinators. Under mayoral control, Bloomberg can mandate curriculum and spending decisions, and any spending not controlled by existing contracts. Generally, elected officials and their appointees can even remove principals and other administrators for arbitrary — though not discriminatory — reasons. (Because New York City principals have a union contract, this authority is severely constrained. But this is unique to the city and could be negotiated out of the contract.)

There have been many arguments raised against this point, but they generally fall into two camps. One was that there are other public institutions that are led by people who cannot be so removed, but these responses have been based on admitted ignorance (e.g. how are members of the NY Board of Regents appointed and how can they be removed?, what are the laws regarding removal of charter board members? etc.). The other response has been that elected officials and their appointees can pressure charter schools to remove a principal. My understanding is that this pressure only comes in the form of withdrawing a school’s charter. I am sorry, but I do not think this argument works. By this argument, major accounts of a private company have the authority to fire salesmen at that company because they can threaten to move their account if the company does not accede to their demand. Going back to one of my examples, the private construction firm who builds schools for a district could be threatened with losing the job if some kind of site supervisor is not fired. That does not make the company part of a district or a public entity.

To state this more plainly: Demands that only have power if backed by the threat to pull a charter or contract do not equate to the sort of ongoing democratic oversight that fits into to my understanding of public schools

Third was my most important criteria, the obligations to educate all comers. One reader, Gideon, wisely pointed out that this would imply that our so-called public universities would be excluded. I do not have a problem with that. I think that the distinction between public and private higher education is rather thin and am therefore happy to say that public universities are not public at all like our public schools are.

Another response, perhaps the most common one, has been that many public schools do not serve all comers. There are exam schools, for example. And the kind of school choice model we have in New York City means that few, if any, schools serve all comers. However, I anticipated much of this argument before writing last week. School districts have a responsibility to educate all comers. It is our public schools who collectively – in the form of districts – meet that obligation. District offices are obliged to figure out how to do this and may not direct children to charter schools as part of their solutions

Let me be clear: Charter schools are not district schools. Virtually the entire purpose of charter schools is to free them from districts and their authority. Any argument that states that charter schools are part of the public schools because they are part of the mélange of schools that educate our children applies equally to unquestionably private schools. If those who advance this argument cite the use of public funds, they would have to claim that private schools that accept publicly funded vouchers are also public schools, an argument that I do not think they want to make.

However, I am also willing to concede that in most meaningful ways, selective so-called public schools are really not public schools. And I would further say that meaningful public status is certainly questionable for any school that students cannot attend simply by following the standard normal procedures that all students/families must follow — including my own high school.

Ken Hirsh and others have raised the point that charter schools are subject to government oversight, including inspections and perhaps various well or lesser known state and federal legislation. The mere fact of regulation and inspection however, does not a public entity make. Meatpacking plants are subject to federal inspection. Restaurants are subject to government inspection. Most organizations are subject to regulation in one form or another, though the degree of regulation often varies from industry to industry.

In fact, there are many regulations that only apply to those who receive public funds. For example, the City of New York enforces much of its own legislation by requiring compliance as a condition of contracting with the city. The fact of regulation does not make these entities public.


So, what am I getting at? I think that public schools must be both responsive to and responsible for the public.

There is no question that charter schools — like many private organizations and entities — are somewhat responsible to the public (as expressed in the form of democratic government). They certainly are more responsive to the public than traditional private schools, but it is not at all clear that they are more responsive than other private entities (i.e. other than traditional private schools) that accept large portions of their operating budgets from the government. By design, they are less responsive than traditional public schools, even if they are more responsive than traditional private schools

Clearly many charter school operators do personally feel responsible for the public and its children. Many charter school leaders work hard to build a school culture that will outlive them and that is infused with that sense of responsibility. I, therefore, understand why some who work in charter schools think of their schools as public schools. However, they build this culture voluntarily; it is not intrinsic to charter schools generally or even a requirement of their charters. The very fact that they are only required to select a student body from among those who apply in the first place makes for a qualitative difference from public schools. Districts cannot place additional students in charter schools when all district schools are overcrowded, nor can they enroll students whose families failed to take part in the normal school selection process in charter schools. In this respect, charter schools are more like traditional private schools than they are like traditional public schools.

And so, while charter schools are clearly not traditional private schools, by design they are not like traditional public schools, either. Even if we acknowledge that there are differences between different charter schools, and between charter school laws, neither of these terms seem appropriate. Those who insist that they are “public schools” or “private schools” clearly have some sort of agenda and some idea other than a full examination of the meaning these terms carry. This leaves us with a need for a third term, as neither “public” or “private” would be appropriate.

Luckily, we already have the term “quasi-public” from other sectors. I do not love this term — or even really like it — but it is surely better than either of the others.

About our First Person series:

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