Can we please banish the term “public charter school” from the education-writing lexicon? The language implies a value judgment about charter schools. To use it is to take sides. Journalists shouldn’t do that.
The obvious problem is that “public charter school” is either redundant or false. If charter schools are public schools, you don’t need to call them public. If they aren’t, calling them that won’t make it so.
The question is open to debate. Advocates insist charter schools are public schools, but critics argue otherwise, sometimes casting them as part of a movement to privatize education. Yet news media, from The New York Times on down, refer to “public charter schools” as if the question were settled.
The argument used to be that charter schools were public because they were publicly funded. But with the rise of tuition voucher programs, that’s also true of many private schools. In Indiana, some private religious schools rely almost exclusively on public funding via vouchers.
Charter schools do have characteristics in common with public schools, in addition to being publicly funded. They can’t charge tuition. They are expected to be open to all students. In Indiana, at least, charter schools are subject to public-records and open-meetings laws. They give required tests and are included in the state’s A-to-F school grading system.
On the other hand, charter schools are not accountable to the public in the way regular public schools and school districts are. They are not overseen by school boards that are elected or appointed by elected officials. Rather, their boards are typically self-selected and self-perpetuating, not always representative of the communities they serve. If you don’t like the way a charter school spends public money, there’s not much you can do.
In Indiana, charter schools may be authorized by local school boards, public or private colleges and universities, the Indianapolis mayor’s office and the Indiana Charter School Board. Some of those entities answer directly or indirectly to the public. Others, like the private institutions Grace College and Theological Seminary, Trine University and Calumet University, do not.
But the point of this post isn’t to settle the argument about whether charter schools are public schools. It’s only to suggest we all call things what they are – and avoid using careless or weighted language that favors one side in the pro-and-anti-charter debate.
In most news and feature stories, it should be enough to refer to charter schools simply as charter schools. They’ve been around a long time, and most people have a good idea what they are. Otherwise, include a simple definition and let readers decide if they are public.