First Person

Charter Schools Are Still Not Public Schools

Last week, I explained why I no longer think that charter schools are public schools and asked for comments from GothamSchools readers. I’ve given a lot of thought to the ideas that others have presented.

First, no one has come close to rehabilitating the argument that charter schools are public schools simply because they accept public funds. Many organizations have their operations paid for — in whole or in part — by public funds, and not all of them are public in the way that “our public schools” are. If charters are public schools, this is not why.

Second, I raised the issue of democratic accountability. To what degree do elected officials and their appointees have authority over arbitrary aspects of charter school operations and staffing? For example, years ago Mayor Bloomberg required all schools to hire parent coordinators. Under mayoral control, Bloomberg can mandate curriculum and spending decisions, and any spending not controlled by existing contracts. Generally, elected officials and their appointees can even remove principals and other administrators for arbitrary — though not discriminatory — reasons. (Because New York City principals have a union contract, this authority is severely constrained. But this is unique to the city and could be negotiated out of the contract.)

There have been many arguments raised against this point, but they generally fall into two camps. One was that there are other public institutions that are led by people who cannot be so removed, but these responses have been based on admitted ignorance (e.g. how are members of the NY Board of Regents appointed and how can they be removed?, what are the laws regarding removal of charter board members? etc.). The other response has been that elected officials and their appointees can pressure charter schools to remove a principal. My understanding is that this pressure only comes in the form of withdrawing a school’s charter. I am sorry, but I do not think this argument works. By this argument, major accounts of a private company have the authority to fire salesmen at that company because they can threaten to move their account if the company does not accede to their demand. Going back to one of my examples, the private construction firm who builds schools for a district could be threatened with losing the job if some kind of site supervisor is not fired. That does not make the company part of a district or a public entity.

To state this more plainly: Demands that only have power if backed by the threat to pull a charter or contract do not equate to the sort of ongoing democratic oversight that fits into to my understanding of public schools

Third was my most important criteria, the obligations to educate all comers. One reader, Gideon, wisely pointed out that this would imply that our so-called public universities would be excluded. I do not have a problem with that. I think that the distinction between public and private higher education is rather thin and am therefore happy to say that public universities are not public at all like our public schools are.

Another response, perhaps the most common one, has been that many public schools do not serve all comers. There are exam schools, for example. And the kind of school choice model we have in New York City means that few, if any, schools serve all comers. However, I anticipated much of this argument before writing last week. School districts have a responsibility to educate all comers. It is our public schools who collectively – in the form of districts – meet that obligation. District offices are obliged to figure out how to do this and may not direct children to charter schools as part of their solutions

Let me be clear: Charter schools are not district schools. Virtually the entire purpose of charter schools is to free them from districts and their authority. Any argument that states that charter schools are part of the public schools because they are part of the mélange of schools that educate our children applies equally to unquestionably private schools. If those who advance this argument cite the use of public funds, they would have to claim that private schools that accept publicly funded vouchers are also public schools, an argument that I do not think they want to make.

However, I am also willing to concede that in most meaningful ways, selective so-called public schools are really not public schools. And I would further say that meaningful public status is certainly questionable for any school that students cannot attend simply by following the standard normal procedures that all students/families must follow — including my own high school.

Ken Hirsh and others have raised the point that charter schools are subject to government oversight, including inspections and perhaps various well or lesser known state and federal legislation. The mere fact of regulation and inspection however, does not a public entity make. Meatpacking plants are subject to federal inspection. Restaurants are subject to government inspection. Most organizations are subject to regulation in one form or another, though the degree of regulation often varies from industry to industry.

In fact, there are many regulations that only apply to those who receive public funds. For example, the City of New York enforces much of its own legislation by requiring compliance as a condition of contracting with the city. The fact of regulation does not make these entities public.


So, what am I getting at? I think that public schools must be both responsive to and responsible for the public.

There is no question that charter schools — like many private organizations and entities — are somewhat responsible to the public (as expressed in the form of democratic government). They certainly are more responsive to the public than traditional private schools, but it is not at all clear that they are more responsive than other private entities (i.e. other than traditional private schools) that accept large portions of their operating budgets from the government. By design, they are less responsive than traditional public schools, even if they are more responsive than traditional private schools

Clearly many charter school operators do personally feel responsible for the public and its children. Many charter school leaders work hard to build a school culture that will outlive them and that is infused with that sense of responsibility. I, therefore, understand why some who work in charter schools think of their schools as public schools. However, they build this culture voluntarily; it is not intrinsic to charter schools generally or even a requirement of their charters. The very fact that they are only required to select a student body from among those who apply in the first place makes for a qualitative difference from public schools. Districts cannot place additional students in charter schools when all district schools are overcrowded, nor can they enroll students whose families failed to take part in the normal school selection process in charter schools. In this respect, charter schools are more like traditional private schools than they are like traditional public schools.

And so, while charter schools are clearly not traditional private schools, by design they are not like traditional public schools, either. Even if we acknowledge that there are differences between different charter schools, and between charter school laws, neither of these terms seem appropriate. Those who insist that they are “public schools” or “private schools” clearly have some sort of agenda and some idea other than a full examination of the meaning these terms carry. This leaves us with a need for a third term, as neither “public” or “private” would be appropriate.

Luckily, we already have the term “quasi-public” from other sectors. I do not love this term — or even really like it — but it is surely better than either of the others.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.