Some people in Oakland don’t like charter schools, most of them seem to live in the Hills, and have good neighborhood choices. Meanwhile many Flatlands families are voting with their feet, choosing public charter schools. Lost in this debate is the fact the families at charters are more likely to be low income, people of color and English language learners than District school families.
But what is the real meaning of “public” schools and why does it matter?
An author attempted to address this in a recent editorial in the Oakland Post ‘There’s No Such Thing as a “Public charter school.”’ First I think the state legislature (who is the elected representative of the people) disagree, they explicitly defined charter schools as public schools in the law. But let’s dig into the claims.
The PR conspiracy and the Purported Origins of Charters
According to the author,“ the term “public charter school” was developed by a PR firm to reframe the way we understand schooling in relationship to “public” and to democracy.”
Here’s what the tubes in the interwebs say,
In 1988, education reformer and American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker proposed a new kind of public school—“charter schools”—which would allow teachers to experiment with innovative approaches to educating students. Publicly funded but independently managed, these schools would be given a charter to try their fresh approaches for a set period of time and be renewed only if they succeeded.
Far from a PR conspiracy by billionaires—charters can be laid at the feet of the teacher’s union. No multiple shooters in grassy knolls, just the union trying to innovate and empower stakeholders, which they should be applauded for.
Democratic Accountability by Voting Makes Something “Public”
The author further states,
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.
Personally I don’t remember voting for the zoo board or have any sense of its accountability publicly. And if you want a philanthrocapitalist conspiracy look no further than the public libraries—the robber baron Carnegie founded that system. And even with the schools. So the OUSD traditional public schools stopped being public schools when we were under receivership, and the State ran our district? Really?
I don’t see voting and democratic accountability consistently in any of the examples that the author gives, and indeed we are in a republic whose founding fathers explicitly rejected a democracy by popular vote, however you may feel about that.
Charter Boards Suck and District Board’s are Awesome
Again from the author,
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.
From the first line here there is an admission that some public schools aren’t accountable to an elected school board, which seems to undermine the overall argument, but anyhoo…
In terms of process they are wrong, charters, as far as I know, follow the Brown Act (Open Meetings Law), they hold public meetings, must have public comments, and must share financials and other documents. All of mine do. The boards I am on have parents elected from the whole parent body (not just voters), do District’s require that?
And when families or staff or anyone shows up or comments it is listened to and matters, we are a community, and listen to, and care about stakeholders. And I guarantee you families that come to our meetings prefer them to the chaos and waiting of the OUSD meetings, where folks from outside the community hurl invectives that I wouldn’t allow at the dinner table at our elected representatives. I can’t speak to every charter.
What Are the “Public” Schools Really
Democracy often means two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Don’t get it twisted, poor Black and Brown folks have made up the meal historically and still do.
When schools were legally segregated—those were the democratically accountable public schools. When I worked as a public interest law firm and helped sue OUSD for failing to serve English learners—and they fought and fought not to serve kids, paying lawyers rather than teachers—those are democratically accountable public schools.
When we have a set of enrollment rules that allocates educational opportunity by zip codes, zip codes created by redlining and segregated housing and reinforced through structural racism- those are the democratically accountable schools.
If I wanted to create a system that would guarantee segregation, guarantee that the kids with the most needs are typically in the weakest schools and the kids with the relatively least needs are in the strongest ones. I would build it the way the traditional democratic system is—by neighborhood.
And let’s carve out the most exclusive island for those not even satisfied with the segregation of the Hills- Piedmont. Where they get 5k more per kid, and the admission price is $1,700,000 for a home.
This “public education” system is systematically unequal. I challenge anyone to show me more than 3 urban districts where more than 50% of Black boys graduate in 4 years. When you look at the NY Times analysis of test scores in “public schools” nationwide—you can’t find a single district where Black students are at parity or above White ones, and poverty is an almost equally common crippling condition. Check it out click a district, every district shows these persistent inequalities.
So if democratically accountable means waiting 4 hours to give a 1 minute public statement, in a rigged system, where at least a third of our parents can’t vote for their “elected” representatives, either because they aren’t citizens or have lost the right to vote, then I am not so sure.
And again if democratic accountability is the key—our families that most systematically need high quality public schools can’t even vote.
So who is the wolf and who is the sheep. And believe me I haven’t seen the wolves offering to change the dinner menu, none of them are offering to open up enrollment rules at their neighborhood schools, and forsake some of their well-inherited privilege.
Public Schools Serve the Public
I personally judge who the public schools are by who they serve.
Not mentioned in the Post article 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.
And the author admits the law says, “charter schools are public schools”, the people’s elected representatives define them that way. Folks may personally disagree but they would be factually wrong.
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.
When You Can’t Choose Housing
The parents I see, those who can’t move to better neighborhood schools, don’t have time for these academic debates. And it is always poor Black and Brown families who are asked to sacrifice their children on the altar of principle. They should remain in the school with a substitute all year, where the 5th grade class is broken up and put in with kindergarteners, as described at a recent board meeting, by those parents.
Or the student board director who talked about high school students with subs all year, who didn’t receive a grade. Believe me that’s not kids in the Paideia program or kids in Hillcrest.
Or the settlement where students had “fake classes” in some Oakland high schools—literally taking the garbage out, I don’t think that counts as AP—again not in the Hills, you can guess the names of the schools where this took place.
And this is nothing against those schools and the folks working their butts off for kids, it’s the system. We are always outnumbered and always out gunned, always getting the short end of the stick, the leftover opportunities.
So charters are public schools, but when I look at how the public schools have historically dis-served Black Brown and Poor kids, the loaded deck on a tilted playing field and the wolves salivating over dinner. Maybe we do need a new definition of “public schools” because if the past sets the course for the future, I want no part of it.