Rethinking How We Categorize Schools

The Wisconsin State Journal put out an informative editorial entitled Don’t Confuse Charter Schools With Voucher Schools in which they declared “Every charter school in Wisconsin is a public school.” The paper’s goal was to clear up misinformation in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, including the use of the term private charter schools. There is nothing incorrect in the editorial, but I do wonder if it is time we in Wisconsin start thinking differently about how we categorize schools.

Currently we focus on the legal definition. Under state statute district run schools are public. Charter schools authorized by districts are public. Charter schools authorized by entities other than school districts like the City of Milwaukee are public. Schools participating in the Milwaukee, Racine, or Statewide voucher program are private. No doubt part of the reasons charter school supporters gravitate to these definitions is that public schools of choice are more politically accepted on both sides of the aisle.

I argue, however, that the reality of schooling in Wisconsin is more complex than the traditional public/private continuum allow. Charter schools are very different than traditional public schools in terms of what they are required to report, their hiring policies, their curriculum, their governance structures, etc. Independent charters are even more different in that they are not overseen by a democratically elected school board. True, charters and traditional public schools are publicly funded. But then again, so are voucher schools. Twenty-four schools In the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) enroll all of their students via vouchers. Ninety-three schools enroll over half their pupils via the MPCP. The story is different in the statewide voucher program where only four schools enroll over half their pupils via vouchers. No school in the statewide program is 100 percent reliant on voucher revenues.

I would argue instead of public and private we should talk about publicness. This involves asking a few simple questions:

  • Is the school subject to open records and open meeting laws?
  • Are school staff public employees?
  • Is the school 100 percent reliant on public funds?
  • Could the school exist without public funds?
  • Is the school overseen by a democratically elected school board?
  • Is the school overseen by a public institution?

A natural outgrowth of placing schools on a public/private continuum is the ability to regulate in a way that is more targeted and more conducive to school-level success within its chosen governance model. A more nuanced understanding of what it means to be public could also help us move past the very debate the Wisconsin State Journal was trying to clear up. Does the fact that charters are technically public really matter to people who do not accept that they are? Does the fact that 100 percent voucher funded schools are technically private really matter to those who want more public school style regulations on these schools? As public education systems evolve so should the way we categorize schools. It is another way to ensure efforts to improve performance are based on the reality of the system we have rather than a system that no longer exists.

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