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.