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Public or Private: Charter Schools Can’t Have It Both Ways

Saturday, January 05, 2013


Are charter schools public? Are they private? Are they somewhere in between?

There is a lively debate in the education community over these questions. Charter advocates claim that charter schools are, of course, public schools, with all the democratic accountability that this entails. The only difference, they say, is that charters are public schools with the freedom and space to innovate. On the other side, charter critics argue that contracting with the government to receive taxpayer money does not make an organization public (after all, no one would say Haliburton is public) and if a school is not regulated and governed by any elected or appointed bodies answerable to the public, then it is not a public school.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was recently forced to weigh in on this question. It came out with a clear verdict that charter schools are not, in fact, public schools.

The ruling came in response to a case regarding a charter school in Chicago, the Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA). In 2010, two thirds of CMSA’s teachers voted to unionize, in accordance with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which grants the employees of all public schools the right to form unions. In an attempt to invalidate this vote, charter officials filed papers with the National Labor Relations Board arguing that CMSA should not be covered under the state law because it does not qualify as a public school.

And that is precisely what NLRB concluded, ruling that CMSA is a “private entity” and is consequently covered under the federal law governing the private sector. According to the federal government, the debate is settled—charter schools are not public schools, and that is all there is to it.

Of course, that is not the whole story, because the charter movement is diverse. On the one hand, there are some community-based charter schools that are very much of and by and answerable to the communities they serve, which to me is what the word “public” is all about. On the other hand, there are corporate charter chains that have been widely criticized for discriminatory practices and unaccountable governance, which do not seem public at all. We should acknowledge these differences, and carve out a place for some nuance in the public-or-private debate.

What we should not do, however, is allow the charter movement or any particular charter chains to have it both ways. The Chicago Math and Science Academy has taken at least $23 million in taxpayer money since it formed in 2004, so it is perfectly willing to be “public” with regards to whose money it spends. But when its teachers want to join a union, now it is a “private entity.” That is hypocrisy, plain and simple. The situation is similar regarding many charter schools’ demographic situations. Chains like KIPP claim they enroll the same student populations as public schools and, like public schools, do not turn any students away. Yet widespread evidence suggests these schools use a variety of tactics, such as counseling certain students out, to create unrepresentative student bodies. In fact, a recent study found that in 2008, 11.5 percent of KIPP students were ELLs, compared with 19.2 percent of students in their local school districts, while 5.9 percent of KIPP students had disabilities, compared with 12.1 percent of students in the local school districts. Likewise, I have written a number of posts about similar irregularities found in the Achievement First charter chain, whose cadre of well-paid lobbyists could not stop stressing the “public” nature of their schools during last year’s hearings in Rhode Island.

That is not how it works. If you’re public, you’re public—you take all students, not just the ones who are easiest to educate; you offer fair protections to your employees; you play by the same rules on an even playing field. And if you’re private, stop claiming otherwise—stop saying your schools are public schools when they are not. Charters cannot have their cake and eat it too, and it’s about time we stopped letting them do so.


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