Why are people confused about the meaning of 'public schools'?

There could not be a clearer example of how pro-charter philanthropists have changed how we talk about education than this one: you hear so many people in education policy insisting that charter schools are public schools too. Both of my parents were journalists and copy-editors, so I was brought up to be careful with my words. So if you notice that I don't use the word 'public' to refer to charter schools, it's for a reason. 

When I say, 'charter schools are not public schools,' I don't think most of my friends who are parents or teachers at charter schools are offended - they live that difference every day - but say that to somebody who works at a pro-charter non-profit or foundation and prepare yourself for a lecture.

That's strange because the word 'public' clearly refers to institutions run by a governmental body (such as a public park, a public power agency, etc.). In 2022, if a future President Sanders or President Warren institutes Medicare for All (that was a fun sentence to write), none of us will start calling Kaiser or Summit 'public hospitals' because they run only on government money. They will still be private hospitals that accept Medicare, and Highland will still be the only public hospital in Oakland.

Part of the justification for calling charter schools 'public schools' is that they only accept students paid for by public funds, which is why we would never consider a charter school to be 'private.' However, there are still big differences between public schools, and charter schools operated by non-profit organizations (there are no for-profit charter schools in California). This year, in fact, the use of 'public' backfired on the charter school sector, because a law was passed (SB 126) requiring charter schools to start having public meetings and public records - previously, their meetings and records were private.

However, charter schools are still not public institutions because their officials are not public officials (they are not elected), their employees are not public employees (so they are subject to different rules as far as unionization and pensions), and they are excused from many of the rules that our public schools are subject to. For example, while all schools, public and charter, are required to be open to all students, charter schools have historically not been held to the same standard as public schools in terms of offering complete programs for students with special needs, newcomer students, and other marginalized groups. About 8% of students at Oakland charter schools have special needs, compared to 14% at public schools, and public schools have a higher proportion of students with the special needs that are most expensive to address, precisely because most charter schools do not have programs for such students.

As pro-charter organizations have encouraged people to call charter schools 'public schools,' we've all started to get a little tongue-tied. Many people now refer to public schools as 'district schools,' but among charter schools there are some that are authorized by the district (Oakland Unified), and some that are authorized by Alameda County, so we sometimes need to make the distinction between district-authorized schools and county-authorized schools. So then 'district schools' is too confusing and people start saying 'district-run schools' to refer to our public schools. I'm even getting confused reading this paragraph and I'm the one who wrote it! So from now on, I will just simply use the phrases 'public schools' and 'charter schools' to mean, um, exactly what they mean.

I am not saying this with any negativity towards parents or teachers at charter schools. Under capitalism, people often need to make the choice that is best for them personally, even if that is not what is best for our whole society. For example, I am sorry to say that I still drive a car that uses gas, and I pay money to PG&E every month, despite my feelings about global warming. I sometimes buy things from Amazon even though I try not to, and when I am finished writing this I will post a link to it on Facebook, in spite of what that company is doing to our political dialogue. This is what is known as 'the tragedy of the commons.' There are some charter schools that have amazing innovative programs, and some that are doing an excellent job with students with special needs and/or newcomers, but as a whole they are undermining Oakland Unified's ability to operate sustainably given the low level of educational funding in California. It is the responsibility of our government and elected officials to legislate and govern in a way that mitigates the negative effects of markets and competition in our society. Hopefully, we can elect a school board next November that will do just that.

It is also our elected officials' responsibility to speak clearly, and not to let billionaire philanthropists or the people who work at the organizations that they fund confuse us about words and what they mean. It should be unnecessary for me to have spent all this time to explain a simple sentence, but I have, and that sentence is: charter schools are not public schools.


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