Are charter schools public schools?

Is a charter school a public school or a private school? Both education historian Diane Ravitch and Rutgers professor Bruce Baker have discussed the question in recent blog posts.

The conventional answer is, of course a charter school is a public school; it just operates under a different set of rules than so-called traditional public schools. But as Ravitch and Baker point out, it’s a little more complicated than that.

“Those who casually (belligerently & ignorantly) toss around the rhetoric that ‘charters are public schools’ need to stop,” Baker argues. “This rhetoric misinforms parents, teachers and taxpayers regarding their rights, assumptions and expectations.”

The argument that charter schools are public schools rests largely on two factors: 1) they are funded primarily by the public through state and/or local taxes, and 2) they are established by public agencies.

In Indiana, the adoption of the nation’s most extensive education voucher program makes factor No. 1 less of a bright line. Private schools get considerable public funding through vouchers awarded to students. Is that so different from the per-pupil funding given to charter schools?

Regarding factor No. 2, it used to be that Indiana charter schools were sponsored only by public entities, answerable either directly or indirectly to the voters: local school boards, state universities and the mayor of Indianapolis.

But the Indiana legislature expanded sponsorship in 2011 to include 30 private colleges and universities (as well as a state charter school board). Are those entities accountable to the public in same way?

Of course, the legislature, which sets the rules for charter schools, is unquestionably a public body. If we don’t like the education policies that lawmakers enact, we should be able to un-elect them.

Indiana requires the organizers of charter schools to be nonprofit organizations. But there’s apparently nothing to prevent the organizers from contracting with for-profit businesses to run the charter schools on a day-to-day basis. Anyway, when it comes to public accountability, for-profit corporation vs. nonprofit corporation is a distinction without a difference.

Another way to look at the question is this: Parents send their children to charter schools in much the same way they send their children to private schools. They opt for an alternative to the local public school based on their perception of what’s best for their kids and comfortable for themselves. A charter school is like a private school, except that someone else is paying – i.e., the taxpayers.

Accountability and transparency requirements for charter schools vary from state to state. As Baker, Ken Libby and Kathryn Wiley have shown, it can take a lot of digging to find basic information like per-pupil spending by certain charter school operators.

Indiana’s charter-school law says that charter schools are subject to state public-records and open-meetings laws the same as regular public schools. But it’s not clear how that plays out in practice.

A few years ago, a team of Indiana newspapers won awards for a reporting project that tested whether local government officials would comply with the Access to Public Records Act. An interesting follow-up would be to request documents and records from public school districts and from charter schools, and see whether either group consistently meets the requirements of the law.


5 thoughts on “Are charter schools public schools?

  1. Thank you for this post. It clarifies much. I have been very confused about this whole issue. I think many of us don’t understand which rules apply to charters, and which don’t. Do charter schools have to administer the same standardized tests? I hear that charters do not have to accept all students–is that the case?

    I believe our local private Catholic school administered IREAD-3 this year, but not ISTEP…could that be the case, even if they now have students attending on vouchers? Or does accepting vouchers mean that you have to administer ISTEP, as well?

    • Thanks, Jenny. I need to check on a few of these questions. I’m fairly certain that charter schools have to give ISTEP and IREAD-3; they also get A-F grades, based partly on ISTEP scores and improvements, the same as regular public schools. Private schools that accept vouchers, I believe, have to give ISTEP; but I’m not sure about IREAD-3 and I don’t think they receive state letter grades. St. Charles (local Catholic school) did give ISTEP in 2011 and previously, because DOE reportered its passing rate. I assume the school gave ISTEP again this year; not sure if it was required prior to vouchers, or a choice. The testing requirements and grading are arguably a nontrivial difference between charter schools and private schools, one that I didn’t mention in this post.

    • Jenny, I checked on this, and here’s what I’ve learned: Charter schools and private schools that accept vouchers *are* required to give ISTEP and IREAD-3 tests. The schools are given A-F grades, the same as regular public schools. Students who don’t pass IREAD-3 are subject to the same retention rules as public-school students. So, really, no difference on testing.

      Charter schools are supposed to accept all students; if they have more applicants than space, they’re supposed to admit students on the basis of a lottery. They’re allowed to give preference to siblings of students who have already been admitted. I think it’s Bruce Baker who points out that charter schools generally don’t have to admit students who show up after the start of the school year; whereas regular public school systems have to find a place for students, no matter when they show up.

      There’s also suspicion in some places that some charters may “counsel” students to leave if they aren’t measuring up, something public schools can’t do short of expulsion for cause. Charters can impose codes of conduct, require parent contracts, etc., while regular public schools would have a hard time doing that.

      Indiana private schools that accept vouchers can’t discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. Other than that, they can set any admission requirements they want — e.g., test scores, evidence of proper behavior, a judgment by the principal on whether the student would “fit.” There’s nothing in state law that says private schools that accept vouchers can’t discriminate on the basis of religion or disability.

      These are good questions — I may try to do a follow-up post addressing some of these.

  2. Steve, the usual excellent reporting to which I became accustomed when you were with the HT continues. This was an informative post, one that is of value to me.

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