Bruce Baker at School Finance 101 offered a calibrated analysis Tuesday on how neighborhood and charter schools differ in the public education arena, but his distinctions miss the larger point. The current expansion of K-12 educational options cuts across all the traditional boundaries in ways that make public and private less relevant.
Take his assertion that charter schools are “limited public access.” Two of his supporting claims are that “they can define the number of enrollment slots they wish to make available” and that “they can set academic, behavior and cultural standards that promote exclusion of students via attrition.” In truth, these two descriptions could just as easily apply to many, if not most, district-operated public schools. All schools, including virtual schools, generally base enrollment on capacity, which has the effect of allowing some students in while excluding others. Of greater relevance is that many district schools now admit students based on test scores or other screening factors. Magnet schools and programs such as International Baccalaureate typically use grades and test scores and conduct to determine eligibility. Many district choice schools, notably the back-to-basics fundamental programs, remove students who don’t meet behavior standards or whose parents fail to meet participation requirements.
While individual district schools may select and reject students, Dr. Baker is right that a public school district must generally take all comers at any time of the year. But it is also true that parents in charter schools can simply leave whenever they are dissatisfied, a powerful tool that is not typically available to them in their assigned district school. Further, his failure to note the similarities in admission policies between many charter and individual district schools ignores the extent to which this remarkable transformation is blurring the lines between public and private. After all, a waiting list for a magnet school is no less disappointing to an eager parent than one for a charter school. Not surprisingly, a recent academic report on low-income students who choose the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found that students in districts with few district school options were more likely to choose the non-district option.
Sherman Dorn, himself an astute academician who is a professor of education at the University of South Florida, reacted to Baker’s post by placing the common school in historical context. Dorn correctly asserts that charter schools and vouchers and tax credit scholarships have “chipped away at the multi-level meaning of ‘public’ that had mostly consolidated by the end of the 19th century.” But this is nothing to rue. It speaks to an educational evolution that is strengthening public education by recognizing parents indeed have unique insights into which learning environments work best for their children.
In this emerging world of educational choice, parents simply want a school that turns on the light for their children. In that most personal of calculations, school governance is unlikely a significant factor.