Monday, September 23, 2019

The problem with calling charter schools "public" schools

I recently posted something to Twitter that generated quite a reaction:

"Support for charter schools by policy makers is an admission they don’t want to do the hard work to make public schools better. And their obsession with test scores that don’t mean what they think drives their narrative. True accountability solves this. Don’t you think it’s time?"

Most supported the thinking, which is simple logic: you don't charter fire houses or police stations when things go awry--you get experts in to solve whatever problems exist. When it comes to schools, policy makers went another route.

But several folks, predictably, did not agree, declaring, with noted exasperation, that charter schools are public schools and for me to say otherwise puts me into the camp of not wanting to have to improve traditional schools to the point that they can compete.

I spend my life shredding such stupid arguments, but the point I want to make here is different. Rather than argue what the label of "public school" should apply to, I instead want to perform a simple compare/contrast exercise to show that whatever you want to call them, they are not the same thing. And rather than write a book (which I could), I'll limit myself to three things.

First, traditional schools have an elected board that represents the will of a community for its schools. This elected board hires the superintendent, makes budgetary decisions, and must ensure that the district operates within all of the rules and regulations placed on them by the state. Funding for facilities is through bonds, which the electorate must approve.

Charter schools have an appointed board that sees to an overall mission of the school, or in the case of charter chains, lots of schools (and often lots of profits). The notion of a community as a physical place does not exist, and budgetary decisions are far less regulated than in a traditional school, and in some cases not regulated at all. Funding is through formulas unique to a state's charter rules, and the idea of going for a facilities bond would be silly since no community exists to vote on such a thing. As a result, facilities are included in the formula.

Second, the school tax for a community is determined by that community, so that whether perceived as fair or unfair traditional schools are funded through taxation with representation. But charter schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled from across taxing jurisdictions. In some states, the funding is actually removed from a traditional public school and given to the charter, by order of the state, thereby usurping the local taxing authority.

No matter how you try and slice it, charters represent a form of taxation without representation, something that should concern all of us, especially when that unrepresented tax goes to for profit companies. And whereas the finances in traditional schools are a matter of public record, that is not the norm for charters, which can operate almost entirely in the dark.

Third, charters get to select their students, but a traditional public school takes everyone. Even when charters go to the extreme to attempt fairness in their selection process, people have to select their way in, which all but guarantees that the students most desperately in need of a solid education, or with the greatest number of barriers to obtaining an education, are left to the traditional schools. That means that the students who are least expensive to educate are likely to end up in charters, and those most expensive to educate are likely to end up in traditional schools (I'm referring only to regular ed students here--charters don't generally take the neediest special education students, which is another issue entirely).

Funding formulas in states don't take these differences into consideration, but rather, fund per student. That leaves the charters with an abundance of resources and the traditional schools with a dearth. And then charter advocates have the gall to suggest that the competition is fair: that traditional schools that serve a more challenging set of students with less than sufficient resources should be able to compete against the over-resourced charter schools and the less challenging student populations.

The remarkable thing is how poorly the vast majority of charters do when compared to the traditional public schools when apples to apples comparisons are performed by thoughtful researchers.

Whatever you call them, and whatever your feelings towards either, charters and public schools are not the same thing--to think otherwise is simple ignorance against the facts.