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