By Ann Berlak
This year, more than a quarter of Oakland’s 49,000 students are attending one of its nearly 40 charter schools, far more per capita than anywhere else in the state.
Is this something for Oaklanders to boast about?
Not long ago I visited a school in Oakland to read to third graders on “Literacy Day.” On the way to the classroom I asked my guide if this was a charter or a public school. The immediate and decisive response: “We’re a public charter school.”
On June 14th the LA Times informed the public: “Charters are independently operated, free public schools.”
The California Department of Education makes no bones about it: “A charter school is a public school.”
However, the term “public charter school” was developed by a PR firm to reframe the way we understand schooling in relationship to “public” and to democracy.
The campaign has been wildly successful. However, though the term “public charter school” is increasingly ubiquitous, charters are not public schools.
Public institutions—schools, libraries, zoos—are, at least in theory, funded by taxes from all the people in its jurisdiction—local, state and national—and are held accountable to and by those people through that fundamental process we in a democracy call voting.
Most public schools are accountable to an elected school board made up of community members. Residents of that community have the right to be present at Board meetings, weigh in on votes and debates, and access public financial documents.
Charter schools are run by executive boards, committees or corporations whose members often live outside the community in which they are located and are not accountable to parents or the taxpayers/community members who fund them.
If you don’t like what your traditional public school is doing, you can make your voice heard by addressing administrators, voting for new leadership or taking a leadership role yourself. If you don’t like what your child’s charter school is doing and you express yourself, you may be asked to leave. There is no democratic mechanism for spearheading policy change.
Public institutions are the motors of democracy. Their purpose is to promote and preserve the fundamental values of a democratic society: liberty, equality and the public welfare or common good.
Public schools recognize that the welfare of everyone’s children and grandchildren is intimately linked to the welfare of all. Through support and oversight by the community, public schooling is intended to serve the common good and preserve fundamental qualities that sustain democracy beyond getting students “college and career ready.” If public schools have not always lived up to their promise then it is necessary to redouble our efforts to have them do so, not to abandon them.
When students leave public schools for charter schools they take their per pupil expenditures –which in California averaged $9,794 last year–with them, leaving public schools with less revenue but the same overhead.
The federal government also spends millions on charters at the expense of public schools. Taxpayers paid one consulting firm nearly $10 million to the U.S. Department of Education Charter Schools. That’s $10 million fewer federal dollars for public schools.
The law forbids local districts, which in California are the main authorizers for new charters, from taking into account the potentially crippling impact of new charters on district financing when considering approving new schools.
So even if you find an excellent charter to send your own child to, you are reducing the chances of every student remaining in the public school having their own excellent education.
Charter schools’ claim they enhance democracy is disingenuous.
The highly touted freedom of individual parents to choose their child’s school comes at the heavy price of reducing two other essential functions of democracy: providing for the general welfare of a society that requires well funded public schools and insuring equal opportunity for all children.
Competing with traditional public schools for space and funding reduces the quality of the remaining public schools, and ignores patterns of clear advantage for the children of savvy parents, thus assuring that some children will be better schooled than others.
Being publicly funded, charters cannot be considered private. However, their private governance and their marginalization of fundamental democratic values disqualify them as public.
The most accurate label for charters is “Publicly–funded private schools.” Don’t let them abscond with our language. There is no such thing as a public charter school.