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Should charter schools be called “public schools”?

Diane Ravitch described in a post yesterday why charter schools are public schools in name only.

To follow is an excerpt from her letter to Deborah Meier on Bridging Differences:

Are Charter Schools Public Schools?

I noted in my blog last week that the visionaries of the charter school idea—Raymond Budde of the University of Massachusetts and Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers—never intended that charter schools would compete with public schools.

Budde saw charters as a way to reorganize public school districts and to provide more freedom for teachers. He envisioned teams of teachers asking for a charter for three to five years, during which time they would operate with full autonomy over curriculum and instruction, with no interference from the superintendent or the principal.

Shanker thought that charter schools should be created by teams of teachers who would explore new ways to reach unmotivated students. He envisioned charter schools as self-governing, as schools that encouraged faculty decisionmaking and participatory governance. He imagined schools that taught by coaching rather than lecturing, that strived for creativity and problem-solving rather than mastery of standardized tests or regurgitation of facts. He never thought of charters as non-union schools where teachers would work 70-hour weeks and be subject to dismissal based on the scores of their students.

Today, charter schools are very far from the original visions of Budde and Shanker. Few are run by teams of teachers. Most are managed by for-profit corporations or by nonprofit corporations with private boards of directors. The charter reflects the aims of the corporation, not the aims of its teachers. Most charters are non-union and rely on young teachers who work long hours and leave after a few years, thus keeping costs low. Many have high executive compensation. Charters have a high rate of teacher and principal turnover. Clearly, charters do not “belong” to the professionals who work in them, but to the corporation and its directors, who hold the charter.

Which raises the question of this blog: Are charter schools public schools? They say they are. But what we now see is that they are public when it comes to collecting tax money, but not in most other respects.

In New York state, the charters went to court to fight audits by the state comptroller; they argued that they are nonprofit educational institutions, not public agencies. They said that only their authorizers had the power to audit them, not public officials. The state law was amended to give the comptroller the authority to audit their use of public monies.

In Chicago and in Philadelphia, charter schools fought efforts by their teachers to unionize on grounds that they were not public schools and thus were not subject to state labor laws. The charter school in Chicago argued in court that it was a private school, not a public school, and thus not subject to the same laws as public schools.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a charter school in Arizona was a private nonprofit corporation, not a state agency, when it was sued by an employee who had been discharged. In this case, a federal court agreed with the charter school that charters are not public schools when it comes to the rights of their employees.

Bruce Baker at Rutgers University, who has written thoughtfully about charters, recently considered whether charters are public or private or neither. Charters, he points out, can limit their total enrollment; can admit students only on an annual basis and not accept any mid-year; and “can set academic, behavior, and cultural standards that promote exclusion of students via attrition.”

Baker writes:

“Imagine a community park, for example, that is paid for with tax dollars collected by all taxpayers in the community, and managed by a private board of directors. That board has determined that the park may reasonably serve only 100 of the community’s 1,000 residents. The amount of tax levied is adjusted for the park’s capacity. To determine who gets to use the park annually, interested residents subscribe to a lottery, where 100 are chosen each year. Others continue to pay the tax whether chosen for park access or not. The park has a big fence around it, and only those granted access through the lottery may gain entrance. Imagine also that each of the 100 lottery winners must sign a code of conduct to be unilaterally enforced by the private manager of the park. That management firm can establish its own procedures (or essentially have none) for determining who has or has not abided by the code of conduct and revoke access privileges unilaterally.”

Today, charters say that they are public when it suits their purpose (getting the same amount of money as public schools), and they say they are not really public when they want to escape the accountability and transparency that accompany the receipt of public funding. Some have a large budget to market their wares. (Regular public schools have no money for marketing.) Some use marketing to create demand so that they can get more charters.

To read the article in full, go to Bridging Differences.


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This entry was posted on May 30, 2012 by in Charter schools, Diane Ravitch and tagged , .
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