It depends on what you mean by “public”. The term doesn’t seem to have a well-nailed-down meaning. As befits an emotionally-freighted term, there are many components of its definition. Where you happen to invest your personal priorities, governs how this word — which is essentially an avatar, a placeholder for a whole host of ideas and representations — is defined.

The first definition in Apple’s computer dictionary states: “of or concerning the people as a whole”. So ‘of the people as a whole’ would suggest that a public school, as a subset of “the people”, should look like “the people” demographically. Charter schools do not. They do not nationally and they do not locally. Charter schools are disproportionately black and brown and poor overall. And as well, some charter schools are disproportionately white (click on each school separately for demographic profiles) and/or wealthy. Charter schools have the – perhaps unanticipated and unintended, but extant nonetheless – result of entrenching segregation, both socioeconomically and racially, within our public school system. And to the extent that in isolating subpopulations disproportionately they are no longer reaching a representative subset of “the people”, they are not ‘of the people’. To the extent that this unfortunate reality of “re-segregation” is detrimental to “the people”, they are destructive of that notion of ‘public-ness’. Therefore, presuming that you happen to prioritize a notion of “the people” to include a mixture of one and all, independent of their social demographic affiliation — under this definition of “public”, charter schools would be a threat to “public education”.

There are many other elements of the term ‘public’ to investigate. One involves the money given back to the people from monies raised as taxes, imposed upon us by our own elected representatives. Taxation with representation is an important part of our democracy. And our government returns a per capita allowance to each public school child. Charter school students receive the same allowance as traditional district school students receive. There is some quibbling about the specifics of this, regarding actual reimbursements, school maintenance and overhead costs and specific educational vs. averaged per capita needs. But essentially it is true that our state and federal government views charter and traditional public school students as equivalent constituencies in terms of publically remunerating them equally for the cost of their education.

But there are at least two other elements of “publicness” that are very different between charter and traditional district public schools. Traditional district public schools are governed by a public system through which transparency is enforced by scrutiny from a vast array of interested, vested, empowered parties. Parents and educators and professional unions and researchers and businesses and elected officials and community members and students themselves – all of these parties access the system through a variety of points that the sheer number of access points guarantees. This is a thoroughly saturated system of checks and balances. There is no question that aspects and elements of Education proceed among corners that are too dark. But there remains a process, a capacity to force light onto the system in even the darkest of recesses.

Not so with privately run charters or even charters managed by nominally “non-profit” organizations. The internet is rife with examples of how parents have no recourse to their school’s governing bodies. It is difficult, often impossible to obtain financial records of charter schools, even for governmental or legal bodies. Teachers and students are hired and fired essentially free of regulating strictures, and efforts to redress grievances are met with unyielding, unconsidered and inscrutable rules.

In short, the will and needs of the public are shut out from the governance of charter schools. In this sense, charters are dismissive of the public and cannot therefore by properly considered a “public school”.

Finally, while there are numerous other components of the term “public”, particularly significant is the ruling of our legal system because it bears such a historical and precedent-driven, reflective weight. In essentials, judges have declared repeatedly that charter schools are not “public entities”. If it quacks like a duck, why then duck the conclusion that charter schools truly are not in any meaningful sense, “public”?

Until a term like “public” gets thoroughly unpacked and all its emotional associations scrutinized separately, we will continue to suffer this semantic confusion. The literal conferring of public monies does not, in my mind, a public entity make. In fact, this issue of money-disbursement is really part of the problem, not the definition. In the sense that matters most to me – that there be equal, educational opportunity for all — charter schools cannot be considered “public”. Egalitarian, democratic schooling in the best interests of ALL the public collectively, comes about – problems notwithstanding — through a “traditional district”, truly Public School. Do not be fooled by pretenders.

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