The Rhetorical War on Public Schools from the Left and Right

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. George Orwell

Words matter.  What we call something affects public support for it. Is a medical meeting, “end of life counseling” or a “death panel”, the descriptions matter   So it’s not a coincidence, that we see Republican rhetoric around “soviet-era” “government schools” as a way to undermine support for traditional public schools.

What may be more surprising is that some on the Left are doing the same thing when they deride “private” charter schools.   Charter schools are public schools by law and serve high needs students at roughly equal rates as traditional district schools, and misleadingly calling them “private” is a sleight of hand to reduce public support.

Children in public schools in both sectors need every dollar they can get, this hurts.

Republicans rail against “soviet era” “government schools”

Both on the state level and at the national republic convention the rhetoric was loud and its purposes were clear.

Let’s start at the state level, where something is the matter with Kansas, and Republicans have started to describe traditional public schools as “government schools.”   This was described in the NY Times,

Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and his political allies threatened to defy the court on education spending and slashed income taxes in their effort to make the state a model of conservatism. Somewhere along the way, the term “government schools” entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system. ..The intent was obvious to her, Ms. Massman said. “They are trying to rebrand public education,” she said. The use of the term has set off alarms even among some Republicans, who fear that it signals still less support, financially and otherwise, for the public schools

Similar sentiments came from the Republican convention, as covered by Ed Week,

Trump Jr. blasted schools for failing American students and serving other interests.”Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now they’re stalled on the ground floor,” he said of schools. “They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”

Trump Jr.’s rhetoric rings pretty hollow to me.  For Black folks there really was no elevator for most of our history here, and despite the huge disparities that exist, things are better statistically now than they have ever been, in terms of educational outcomes.  I don’t see some America in the rear view mirror that was so great.

But it’s not just the Right on the rhetorical warpath.

The left’s war against “private” charter schools

The Left has its own war of words with a parroting of rhetoric opposing “private” charter schools.  This is a national campaign issue picked up by Bernie Sanders, that also roosts in Oakland.

Every Oakland Unified  board meeting that discuses charters will bring out the privatization zombie.

“’Private’ charter school’, ‘private’ charter school”, the zombie repeats again and again.

Not mentioned is that charters serve a higher percentage of low income students and English learners than traditional district schools, while also serving fewer identified special education students and receiving less State money.  So roughly the same kids, less money.

As someone who has worked with districts and charters for 20 some years and a lawyer, I have to tell you, there is no such thing, as a “private” charter school, at least not in CA or NY.  Charter schools are public schools by law, the people’s elected representatives define them that way. You may personally disagree but you would be factually wrong.

Charters must admit students by random lottery and can’t charge any tuition—so they can’t pick and choose kids. They are required to meet most of the same transparency requirements as other school districts, and have to follow relevant state and federal law, including civil rights laws.

So this isn’t some Humpty Dumpty moment when a word “means just what I choose it to mean.”   Charters are public schools.   Sometimes there are rogue schools, who should be reeled in or closed—just like with some districts or district schools.  But charters serve basically the same kids and deserve the same public support.

Words can hurt

Each of these rhetorical barbs is meant to delegitimize public schools, and they hurt.  Our kids in public schools, particularly in California need all the support they can get.  School funding is woefully inadequate and depends on the kindness of the legislature.  Rhetorically trashing public schools undermines public support.

I have long argued that funding in California is insufficient to meet the needs of students, and that we need to restructure school finance.  At some point we also need to bury the hatchet in the education wars, and stop seeing these political arguments as one public school sector’s loss is another sector’s gain, robbing from Pedro to pay Paul.  Instead we need to unite Pedro and Paul and fight together to give both of them the resources they need.





What do you think?

7 thoughts on “The Rhetorical War on Public Schools from the Left and Right

  1. Oh, my. And a lawyer at that. Because charters are by law called public does not make them so. You are likely aware that language written into law is not the index of truth. Back to Democracy 101. The term “Public Charter School” is an oxymoron

    The term “public charter” was developed by a PR firm with the explicit intention to reframe the way we understand schooling in relationship to “public” and to democracy.

    To reiterate what should be obvious to everyone: public institutions—schools, libraries, zoos—are, at least in theory, funded by 
taxes from all the people in its jurisdiction—local, state and national—and are held accountable to and by those people through that fundamental process we in a democracy call voting.

    Most public schools are accountable to an elected school board made up of community 
members. Residents of that community have the right to be present at Board meetings, weigh in 
on votes and debates, and access public financial documents.

    Charter schools are run by executive boards, committees or corporations whose members often 
live outside the community in which they are located and are not accountable to parents or 
the taxpayers/community members who fund them. 

    If public schools have not always lived up to their promise then it is necessary to redouble our efforts to have them do so, not to abandon them or to promise benefits to an exclusive few.

 Charter schools contribute to the demise of public schools. Its surprising how many people refuse to acknowledge that charter schools compete with private schools for money and space. When students leave public schools for charter schools they take their per pupil expenditures –which in California averaged $9,794 last year–with them, leaving public schools with less revenue but the same overhead. The federal government also spends millions on charters at the expense of public schools. Taxpayers paid one consulting firm nearly $10 million to the U.S. Department of Education Charter Schools. That’s $10 million fewer federal dollars for public schools.

    The law forbids local districts, which in California are the main authorizers for new charters, from taking into account the potentially crippling impact of new charters on district financing when considering approving new schools. So even if you find an excellent charter to send your own child to, you are reducing the chances of every student remaining in the public school having their own excellent education.

    Charter schools’ claim they enhance democracy is disingenuous. The highly touted freedom of individual parents to choose their child’s school comes at the heavy price of reducing two other essential functions of democracy: providing for the general welfare of a society that requires well funded public schools and insuring equal opportunity for all children. Competing with traditional public schools for space and funding reduces the quality of the remaining public schools, and ignores patterns of clear advantage for the children of savvy parents, thus assuring that some children will be better schooled than others.

    Being publicly funded, charters cannot be considered private. However, their private governance and their marginalization of fundamental democratic values disqualifies them as public.

    The most accurate label for charters is “Publicly–funded private schools.”

    1. So I guess by your definition when Oakland unified was under receivership, and the elected board didnt run things, that the OUSD schools weren’t public schools any more? I appreciate your argument, I guess, that I just think the legislature has more authority to define public programs than individuals, and that is the democratic principle. Many charters have parents on the board and if you live in Oakland I would invite you to visit a charter board to learn more

      1. I would really appreciate a more nuanced vocabulary when it comes to “public” schools. I think the that “public v. private” debate generally obscures more than it reveals when it comes to charter schools. I totally agree with Ann that there are many aspects of charter schools that are not very “public” if by public we mean democratically accountable (and I would assume we all agree that OUSD in receivership was less democratically accountable than OUSD today).

        The issue of whether the proper locus of democratic control is local v. state (or national) is one of those totally fascinating questions that I personally find very hard to rationalize in a way that doesn’t reflect my own biases. Are state-level rules and spending promoting progressive educational ideals and redistribution of resources? Go state control! Are state-level rules undermines local districts’ autonomy and ability to make wise choices about school openings and closings (as Prop 39 seems on track to do). State control is bad, let us run our own districts our own way!

        1. I will give you that the public -private dichotomy lacks nuance, and that there is something different about democratically elected governance. Honestly I got involved in charters because the District was so unresponsive and starting community schools run by a community board was more representative to me. And I guess as an African American, the “public schools” and the democratic politics that run them have generally just not worked for us. Charter boards vary widely too, I guess I would just say– yes I agree its not that simple

  2. I’m a retired teacher and not a lawyer so when I read the California’s legislatures charter law I don’t see the legislature saying charters are public schools.

    How I read California charter law as a lay person is that for certain purposes charters are to be treated as public schools. Citizens United doesn’t make corporations people. The Supreme Court ruling is that for certain purposes corporations are treated as sharing legal rights and protections that humans enjoy under the Constitution of the United States including the right of individuals have to contribute to political campaigns.

    Legislative law nor a court ruling doesn’t make public schools and charter schools the same. The California legislature wanted charter schools to be different and wanted the difference to allow a competition with each other for student enrollment. Underneath the charter school law creation with the assumption that competition would make the “public school system” better. Public school system therefore consisting of public school and privately managed charter schools. To say that charters are public schools is misleading. To say that there are public charters is also misleading. To say that there is a California public system with two subsystem in competition for enrollment is accurate. Public charters is charter school propaganda and needs to be flagged as such.

More Comments