Saturday, March 27, 2021

Is Your Charter School A Public School?

It seems to be one of the eternal questions (well, sort of a question) of the education debates-- aren't charter schools public schools? So for those folks who are still a little fuzzy on this, let me offer a handy set of questions to help you decide. Here are the signs of a public school.

Is the school and its resources owned by the public?

Who owns the building? If the school closed tomorrow, who would take possession of the building, the desks, the chairs, the books, the music stands, etc etc etc. If the physical resources of the building are owned by the public, it's probably a public school.

Does the school accept all students?

Usually when discussing this point, we get all caught up in the ways that charter schools market, cream, council out, don't offer specialized programs, and set up enrollment hoops that allow them to decide which students they will and will not take. But let's simplify this issue. Does the school accept all students? All. If they have a lottery to award seats to a select few, the answer is no, they are not a public school. No public school district gets to say, ever, "I'm sorry, we only have enough seats for fifty of you, so we'll have a lottery, and the people who don't get a seat in the lottery, well, you'll be on your own. Not our problem." 

Is the school run by local elected officials?

When we get to the very top level of management, do we find a board of local people elected by local taxpayers? If so, it's probably a public school. We're in a fuzzy grey area in districts under mayoral control, but not at all fuzzy when discussing upper management that is not elected by anybody at all.

Did those local officials open the school?

Who decided this school should exist, and that local taxpayers should pay for it? If that decision was made by a board of local citizens elected by local taxpayers, it's probably a public school.

Are those local official required by law to meet only ever in public?

Can the board of local citizens elected by the local taxpayers meet in secret? Or must their meetings be announced and in public, with exceptions only for times when the group must adjourn for privacy regarding, say, personnel or student issues? Public school boards don't get to meet unannounced, privately.

Are all financial records available upon request, and subject to state audit?

If you've gone to court to block the state from auditing your school financial records, you are not a public school. It's simple, really-- you're spending taxpayer money, and the taxpayers are entitled to an accounting of it. Any taxpayer should be able to access your financials. The state should audit you regularly. 

Does the school operate under the same rules laid out by the state in its public school code?

This varies tremendously from state to state, but the principle remains. Do your students, your staff, your families all enjoy the same rights and protections provided to folks in public schools? Does your school operate by the same rules that have always been on the books, or does it enjoy a bunch of special exceptions?

Finally, here is a question that has absolutely no bearing on whether or not your charter is a public school-- is the school funded with public taxpayer dollars

The answer to this question tells us nothing. In voucher states like Indiana and Florida, public tax dollars are used to fund religious schools, and yet none of them would claim to be a "public school." Public tax dollars delivered by way of food stamps and rent support do not turn supermarkets and apartment complexes into public facilities. The mere presence of a public tax dollar does not turn a private business into a public institution. 

If your school answers "no," to the above questions, it is not a public school. That does not automatically mean that it is evil, destructive and a pox on your community. But it is not a public school. It is absolutely true that, under certain circumstances, charter schools could be public schools. But modern charters, as currently operated, aren't public schools. The word "public" has been used as a fig leaf, a bit of window dressing by some folks who want to mask privatization while giving certain charters an association with qualities they do not actually possess. But it does not matter how many times I call my pig a cow; when the butchering is all done, I'm going to be eating pork. 


    Is it time for indepth reporting on the 128 charter schools in Chicago? Has anyone read one someplace? Real stories would be helpful for public awareness instead of generalities.

  2. Basically correct. However, on the lottery and application part, I think you need a little nuance.

  3. In NYS, charter school boards must comply with Open Meetings Law and allow the public to attend; but the law is not enforced and many charters do not announce where and when they're meeting in any place that the public can access. Even worse the Charter Management Organization that really runs the schools does NOT have to have open meetings. In NYC, only the NYC comptroller can audit charters, not the state comptroller, and he or she can only do financial and not performance audits which would show how many of these schools are illegally pushing out kids and/or not giving them their legally prescribed services.

  4. There are phrases that do not have the meaning of each individual word, but have a meaning as a phrase. If we separate the words and examine them individually, we come up with meaning that is not the same as the meaning of the phrase.

    Friday night lights

    Continental breakfast

    Duck pins

    Public school

    The charter folks try to separate these words, they try to say "a school that is open to the public" = "public school"

    But "Public School" is a set phrase with a fairly well-understood meaning. Charter operators and proponents are trying to distort that language, and separate out "public" in a novel way, to cloud discussion. But we have traditionally categorized schools by who ran them, not who was eligible to attend. Public, Parochial, Private - these refer to the operators. This is an ongoing political battle, including over language.

  5. Peter, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the issue of "when is a school a 'public' school". For what it’s worth, I am a retired school superintendent with several years of experience on both the “district” and “charter” sides of public education.

    First, some points of agreement. The board of a public charter school should be subject to the same FOI meeting and records requirements as a district board of education. And public charter financing should be subject to public audit. Also, no "for profit" entity should receive a charter to operate a public school. That said, non-profit charter boards should be able to purchase goods and services from for-profit companies, just as district boards of education do.

    I also agree that public schools should own their own buildings. The main reason that charter school buildings are often owned by other parties is that charter opponents work to deny them access to the facilities financing that pays for district buildings – thus creating the very problem to which you refer. Public charter schools should have access to the same facilities financing as district schools, so that they could own their own buildings.

    Of course, no charter school can accept more students than it has seats for. Unlike a town or district that has taxing authority, charters are not free to expand themselves. That's why they employ lotteries. Yes, charter schools often have long waiting lists of families who prefer them to their assigned district schools. The answer to that is to allow charters to expand in response to popular demand. Regrettably, charter opponents advocate "caps" on charters, again creating one of the problems that you cite.

    District schools clearly fail the “accept all students” test. Just ask any parent who tries to enroll their child in a district school but lives out of town - or lives in the town but in the "wrong" attendance zone. Or a child who is denied access to a public magnet or exam school. In my state of Connecticut, district boundary lines are routinely used to exclude low income and minority students from public schools in affluent communities.

    As for being "run by local elected officials", the states that have established public charter schools have decided that local politicians are not the only folks who can create public schools. States have created boards of education and authorized them to operate public schools. And, over the last 25 years, states have also decided that properly authorized charter boards can operate public schools as well. Those decisions are up to the elected state legislatures and governors - not advocates like you and me.

    Here are my criteria for what I believe constitutes a “public education”:

    • Authorized by state constitution and/or legislation;
    • Funded by tax dollars – free to participating students;
    • Open to all students on – no cherry-picking or zip code exclusions – random lottery process in event of oversubscription;
    • Held to state FOI and auditing requirements; and
    • Committed to publicly enacted learning goals, as measured by independent state assessments.

    Thanks for considering my point of view.

    1. "Open to all students - No cherry picking"

      Nice try.
      The reality is that many charters "cherry pick" the most engaged and supportive parents by creating very subtle but very real obstacles in the application process. Severe attrition rates bespeak the "weeding out" of the non-compliant and struggling students - "cherry picking" post facto so to speak.

  6. A charter is a contract. A charter school is a contractor-operated school. Good government requires contract oversight. Good government requires that the lines between the contracting organization and the contracted organization remain distinct. Good contracting practice is for the requiring agency to ask potential vendors to submit bids to provide a given service for a set period of time. Then the requiring agency evaluates the proposals and selects the best. If the agency provides a building, it gets it back when the contract ends.

    Any of that sound like what is happening in Florida?