Myth #4: Charter schools are private.
Charter schools are public schools. They are funded by taxes collected from the public. They may get a "pass" on certain regulations that govern other public schools so as to unleash the massive forces of innovation and unbridled free-market energy but they are subject to many of the same laws. For example, they may not turn away students who wish to enter them and they must accommodate students with disabilities.
Charter schools are public, but they don't act like it, and some work to project a private image. They can run ads that stress how demanding their curriculum is, so as to scare off students who might score low on tests. They will flat out tell parents of students who have disabilities that they can do nothing for them. They will require parents to pledge a certain number of volunteer hours during the year thus driving off single-parent families but then never ask for the hours once the family has been admitted. (See Welner (2013) below.) We have even encountered teachers in charter schools who thought that the school was private.
Some court decisions have recently reinforced the idea that charters are not really public. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled in 2010 that charter schools in Arizona were not like traditional public schools. This ruling could threaten the federally guaranteed rights of charter school students, which protect all public school students from unreasonable search and seizure, and unfair disciplinary policies, and ensure freedom of speech. The IRS has questioned whether charter school teachers can participate in state pension systems. Many charter school teachers are not allowed to form or participate in a union (McNeil & Cavanagh, 2012); when their right to unionize has been brought to court and upheld, charter school companies have argued that they should not be subject to the laws of the state that apply to public institutions because they – the charter schools – are private.
The charter school companies want it both ways. They are public when the money is handed out, but just ask for an accounting of how they are spending that money, and who is getting paid what salary in the school, and they quickly become private.
McNeil, M., & Cavanagh, S. (2012, February 2). Charter advocates claim rules in works would affect pensions [Web page]. Education Week blog. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/pbpxq4t
Welner, K. G. (2013, April). The dirty dozen: How charter schools influence student enrollment. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/TCR-Dirty-Dozen
*Thanks to Amy Marcetti Topper for help with Myth #4.
Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder