Phi Delta Kappa released its annual poll today. Nothing new except that Gallup is no longer the polling company. No headlines. The only obvious conclusion: the American public is confused about why we have schools and what they should be doing and whether they are doing it well.

The public doesn’t agree on what the purpose of public schools is. 45% says it is to teach academics. About a quarter think they should teach career readiness. Another quarter think they should prepare students for citizenship.

Just to be clear, the reason that public schools were first established and treated as a community responsibility was to prepare good citizens to sustain our society into the future. There are many subdivisions under the goal of preparing to be good citizens, which would include the academic skills needed to read, write, think critically, be informed about issues in science and history, and be in good health. Somehow, the central purpose has been lowered in status. When people lose sight of the central purpose of education, then they fall prey to bogus claims about choice, charters, and vouchers, about which sector can do a better job of teaching academic skills or career skills. We have public schools as a public responsibility to teach young people to become active and informed citizens. All the rest follows.

In reading through the inconclusive public opinion on almost every subject, one question caught my attention because of its wording:

Q. Charter schools are public schools that are run without many of the state regulations placed on other public schools. Do you think it’s better for charter schools to meet the same educational standards as other public schools or to set their own educational standards?

The answer was a split decision. 48% said meet the same standards, 46% said no.

The question assumes that charter schools are public schools.

But charter schools are NOT public schools. Whenever charter operators are sued, their defense is that they are not public schools. They are privately managed schools that receive public funding. As the NLRB ruled last week, and as federal courts have ruled, charter schools are not held to the same standards as public schools because they are NOT “state actors.” Public schools are state actors. Charters themselves plead that they are not public schools. In 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a charter operator in Arizona ran a private nonprofit corporation, not an agency of the state, in response to a lawsuit by a former teacher. In 2011, the staff at the New Media Technology Charter School wanted to form a union. They appealed to state law. The charter owner, however, said the school was not public and was not governed by state law; he said it was a private school subject to the NLRB. In the same year, teachers at the Chicago Math & Science Academy also wanted to form a union. There, too, the charter operator rebuffed them by saying the school was a “private” entity, not a public school, and was not subject to state law. (See pp. 163-164 of Reign of Error). Charter schools are run by private entities that receive government contracts. The receipt of public funds does not make an entity public. If it did, then every major defense contractor would be public, not private.

The answer is troubling as well as the question. If nearly half of the respondents think that charter schools do not have to meet the same standards as public schools, what is it they believe? Do they believe that charter schools should not be held accountable for student test scores? Do they think that charter schools should be judged by some other metric?

I have been reading PDK polls for years. I learned nothing new from this one, other than that the public has lost sight of why we have public schools. That may be the consequence of propaganda from the privatizers. If there is no agreement on why we pay taxes to support public schools, then any alternative will do, including schools run by churches and schools run by foreign nationals.