Charter schools: Public? Private? Does it matter?

Harlem Success Academy calls itself a free public elementary school

Those who live and breathe education policy assume everyone knows what a “charter school” is. (Here is some history.) But polls show that most people haven’t a clue. Newspapers don’t help much. Sometimes they are said to be  schools that are  “publicly funded but privately operated.”  Sometimes they are said to be “public schools that are less regulated.” Whatever they are, there are more than 5,000 of them enrolling more than 1.5 million students and in many cities there are long waiting lists. The Obama administration supports “good” charter schools, i.e. those that make a difference in the lives of kids, and is putting some money toward promoting their spread.

On the Gotham Schools site in New York City, a Teachers College graduate student named Alexander Hoffman parsed the terms “public school” and “charter school” and determined, in a tightly argued analysis, that charter schools are NOT public schools. (That’s the claim made by many opponents of charter schools.) One of his reasons is that charter schools “by design… are less responsive than traditional public schools….” I am sure that many parents of “public schools” wouldn’t give their schools high marks for responsiveness.

But here’s my question: why does it matter if they are public or private as long as students are getting a good education and are not being forced into religious instruction?

– Richard Lee Colvin

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Emily Alpert

I would argue that it matters if people *believe* that charters are private, because it can dissuade families from applying in the first place and skew the enrollment for charters. I was also stunned by how many teachers — teachers! — who were applying for jobs at High Tech High thought it was a private school. Maybe they just didn’t do their research, but many chalked up the good results and engaged kids to HTH being selective — which it can’t and shouldn’t be. That undercuts the reasoning behind charter schools.

richard Colvin

You’re right, Emily. Parents (and teachers!) have to know so they know they can choose to send their kids or work there.

Alexander Hoffman

Actually, if you want to look at that quote in context, I was not suggesting that public schools are more responsive *to parents.* Instead, I was writing about their relationship to democratic oversight (i.e. elected officials and their appointees.)

You see, parents are just one part of The Public.

As for why it matters? Well, come on over to Gotham Schools and read the comment thread. We are getting into that.

For now, let me say that it has a bearing on the obligation that the public has to support them and the kinds of expectations that the public may fairly have of them. Of course, if you think that schools only exist to serve the parents of the children who attend them, you may think that think these issues irrelevant. But I would then have to ask you, “Why should the childless support them?”

Richard Colvin

I carry no particular brief for charter schools or for public schools operated by school districts. I’m agnostic. Charter schools are granted charters under state laws passed by elected representatives. My point, though, is that the label is unimportant compared to the quality of education they provide. By quality, I mean teaching students to function in a democratic society as well as teaching them the skills they need to hold a job. Alexander, you also say that “public” schools as you define them cannot push students out. But, in fact, they do, for lots of reasons. And some New York City “public” schools, not just those students ave to test into, are very selective.

Alexander Hoffman

Mr. Colvin,

1) Obviously, I invite you to come and join the discussion over at Gotham.

2) As I wrote, many companies are given work and money by the government, by elected representatives and their appointees. That does not make them public. The degree democratic oversight that these non-public entities are subject to is quite different than that for public agencies. It is not just a matter of initial authorization, which is are you seem to be noticing. Clearly, for the reason you point out, they are legitimate. But that’s all the initial charter grants them.

3) As I have written, it is not just a label. This is because these labels carry associations and values with them. We can demand certain things of public institutions, and perhaps have a certain obligation to support them. Our relationship to non-public institutions is quite different. Public schools should serve the public, perhaps even the entire public; private institutions are free to benefit only those they choose. There are a host of issues there.

4) I accept that any school that “counsels students out” loses its moral legitimacy as “a public school.” And I have implied that should be corrected, else they lose the public’s support. (Mind you, there is certain double think where we accept that the public schools is a sort of single entity, probably in the form of a school district. In a school choice environment, the district takes responsibility for students, whereas in an geographic assignment system, that falls more to individual schools.)

5) I am perfectly willing to question the degree to which exams schools and other highly selective schools really are public schools. In the future I might even argue that the small school movement has succeeded in pleasing some parents at the expense of maintaining truly public schools. I do not see anything good for the public in allows so-called public schools to be selective; I just see a lot of good for a relatively small group of students and families.


In my view, it’s rather a side issue how to define public vs. private, and which label fits charter schools. The bigger point is the dishonesty in which much of the charter sector engages: the pretense that (in the case of charter schools with more applicants than openings, which is not true of all charters) students are chosen impartially by lottery from the full spectrum of students and families — and the sin of omission in concealing the attrition/push-outs/”counseling out” that goes on so widely in many charter schools.

The most successful charter school here in my school district, San Francisco Unified — Gateway High School — uses an application process similar to a private school’s, but claims to select by lottery. The process requires teacher recommendations, an essay, parent and student signed commitments to this-n-that, transcripts, etc. Well, even if there is NO reviewing of those applications and all students are genuinely put into a blind lottery, clearly that process self-selects for more-motivated and higher-functioning applicants. The ****ed-up won’t be darkening their door. And of course that’s true of the KIPPs and similar charters too. It’s obviously false to portray those schools as enrolling a cross-section of the community.

So these schools are more similar to private schools in that way, but the real issues are the creaming of the higher-functioning students and the dumping of the lower-functioning on the true public schools — and the never-ending lying about it — not whether they’re more more like public or more like private. IMHO, anyway.

Two other points: Charter advocates will respond that public schools sometimes “counsel out” students too. And that’s probably true. But the difference is that a student prodded out of a public school is still the responsibility of the school district. When a charter school gets rid of a troublesome or challenging or costly-to-educate student, the charter never has to trouble its little head about that problematic young person ever again.

Also, full disclosure, my own kids attend/attended (one has graduated) a public arts magnet high school that admits by audition — the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA). The difference between that process and the Gateway High School or KIPP admission process is that SOTA’s audition process is transparent — everyone involved knows that admission is by audition; there’s no pretense.

[...] are getting a good education and are not being forced into religious instruction?” — Hechinger Institute boss Richard Lee Colvin on the constant (and often, rambling ed-schoolish dribble) efforts of some to argue that charter [...]

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