Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, has written an excellent summary of the reasons that charter schools are not public schools. As she puts it, they are private schools that receive public funding. They are like private contractors who are working with a government contract; when they are sued in court, they claim they are not state actors, they are private contractors. That is, they plead that they can’t be held to the same laws as public schools because they are not public schools.
What makes public education advocates angry, she writes, is when charter schools claim “success” but play by different rules.
She uses the example of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charters to show that her charters do not enroll the same proportions of children who are poor and children with disabilities as the neighborhood school. In addition, they don’t accept new students after a certain grade because they don’t want to ruin their “culture” by bringing in new students (this is called “backfilling”).
Public schools have public governance, with open meetings and financial transparency. Charter schools almost never do.
The differences between public schools and charter schools go well beyond issues of governance. One of the strengths of a true public school is its ethical and legal obligation to educate all. Public school systems enroll any student who comes into the district’s attendance zone from ages 5 to 21 — no matter their handicapping condition, lack of prior education, first language, or even disciplinary or criminal record. Not only will empty seats be filled at any grade, if there is a sudden influx of students, classes must be opened.
In contrast, charter schools control enrollment — in both direct and subtle ways. In 2013, journalist Stephanie Simon wrote a comprehensive report exposing the lengthy applications, tests, essays and other hurdles used by many charters schools to make sure they get the kind of student that they want.
Even when some charter chains, such as Aspire, Success Academy and KIPP, have simple applications and lottery entrance, student bodies are not necessarily representative of neighborhood schools.
The Democratic National Convention is about to begin. Will the party show commitment to rein in the “Wild West” of charter schools, as new platform language suggests? Friends of public education will be watching.