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.

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School politics and the English language

Language matters when we write about education. If we want to have honest conversations about the topic, we should use honest words and phrases.

As George Orwell wrote in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” it’s obvious that lazy thinking can corrupt language, but “language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”

Here are a few that, in Orwell’s words, should be sent to the dustbin where they belong.

Education reform. I wrote an entire post on this in 2012. Reform doesn’t just mean change; it means change for the better. We shouldn’t use reform to refer to a set of policies – charter schools, vouchers, test-based accountability, etc. – that haven’t been proven effective.

At-risk students. Journalists use this phrase to refer to children who are poor or who live in what are often called blighted neighborhoods. Unfortunately, some educators use it too. But what does it mean, really? At risk of what? Read this powerful essay by Jason Buell and you’ll think twice before putting a label on children.

The civil rights issue of our time. This is a favorite of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and also of politicians who, believe me, would not have marched with Dr. King. As recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., have made clear – and as Shree Chauhan, Audrey Watters and others have written, civil rights is the civil rights issue of our time. Continue reading

Just say no to the term ‘education reform’

Years ago, editors and reporters at a mid-sized Indiana newspaper sat around a conference table and talked about what to do about two words that had entered the political lexicon: pro-life and pro-choice.

We decided not to use them, except in direct quotes or if they were part of the names of organizations. Instead we would refer to “abortion opponents” and “supporters of abortion rights,” or something like that – an approach that now aligns with Associated Press style used by most newspapers.

Our rationale was straightforward. Both pro-life and pro-choice were simplistic, inaccurate and designed to demonize the opposition. People who opposed abortion didn’t have a monopoly on supporting “life,” whatever that meant. And people who opposed abortion did so because they believed it ended a life that was precious to God, not because they opposed anyone’s “right to choose.”

Both terms were, at best, misleading. Politicians can mislead. Advocates can mislead. Journalists should just tell the truth.

The issue comes to mind with the current use of the word reform for a menu of approaches to education policy – typically including giving parents more choices through charter schools and/or vouchers; using student test results to evaluate teachers and make decisions about compensating, promoting and firing them; and limiting the power of teachers’ unions and the authority of elected school boards.

The problem is that reform isn’t a neutral word. It doesn’t just mean change; it means change for the better. According to Merriam-Webster, it can mean “a) to put or change into an improved form or condition; b) to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.”

So people who oppose, or are skeptical of, the policies characterized as education reform are by implication the champions of faults and abuses. Or they are “defenders of the (abusive) status quote.” Even if, for example, they rage against the educational status quo, with its segregated schools, savage inequalities and inattention to poverty. Continue reading