The problem with ‘public charter school’

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.

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5 thoughts on “The problem with ‘public charter school’

  1. So, should organizations exempt from taxation under IRS code section 501c3 — which include the vast majority of charter schools — no longer be called “public charities”? The use of “public” in this instance, as in the case was of “public charter schools,” refers to whom the organizations are supposed to serve, not to how they are governed.

    • I get your point, Les, but I think schools and charities are different animals. Most people don’t distinguish between public charities and private charities the way they distinguish between public schools and private schools. “Public charity” probably makes sense if you’re referring to tax status, but it’s not a term most people use in everyday speech. (Are there private charities? To many people, that would seem contrary to the idea of “charity”). I think most people have a certain idea of what a “public school” is, and a charter school partly fits the conception and partly doesn’t. Question for you as an expert: Aren’t most private schools nonprofit? Can they be public charities?

      • Yes, there are private charities. About two dozen types under the IRS code, such as unions and mutual societies. They are tax-exempt, but contributions to them are not deductible. Foundations are public charities that are not supported by the public; instead, the money, which is tax-deductible, comes from an individual, family of business. Welcome to the world of the IRS!

        Private schools, if not proprietary, are public charities. Why? For centuries, education in general has been understood to provide principally public benefits. Thus, even schools with very selective enrollments are classifed as serving the public. Whether they deserve to be still is a different question. More than a few scholars believe the principal benefits of education are increasingly private ones.

        I think the use of “public” in connection with charter schools is an example of the political use of language, but is neither incorrect nor misleading.

      • Thanks, Les. I think I mostly agree with your conclusion. I won’t argue the language is false or even misleading, and I don’t fault charter officials for using it about their own schools. But it is political – a thumb on the scales of reader perception- and I don’t think journalists should use it without a compelling reason.

  2. As you know, I used to teach about political communications. I began my syllabus with a famous Disraeli quote: “With words, we govern men.” And that’s as true for journalists as for politicians (or nonprofit leaders). .

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