Friday, February 27, 2004

Public charter schools vs. monopoly schools -- a question of nomenclature 

Soundfury has a nice little post rounding up some of the recent press coverage around charter schools, and some friendly advice to a mother who is upset about the treatment of her child in a public school.

TigerHawk loves charter schools in both theory and practice. Indeed, our children attend the Princeton Charter School, and Mrs. TigerHawk chairs its capital campaign.

Someday, I'll work up the energy and the outrage to write an extended and spirited defense of charter schools. For the time being, however, I simply want to propose some new nomenclature to move the debate along.

Most people do not understand that charter schools are as fully public schools as the systems that elected officials -- usually school boards -- manage centrally. Charter schools in most places, including New Jersey, are supported by taxpayers, and they must accept all children that apply, or ration places via a non-discriminatory mechanism, such as a lottery. They are, in short, public schools managed outside the traditional public system.

Of course, the opponents of charter schools usually refer to the alternative as "public schools," implying that charter schools are something less than public. This is, of course, fraudulent. It is also unfortunate for the debate, because I believe that the typical slightly aware voter believes that charter schools are private, which fosters the impression that they are exclusive.

The only fair thing to do is to recognize that both charter schools and "public" schools are genuinely public, and to alter the nomenclature accordingly. When in any discussion with the unconverted, I refer to charter schools as "public charter schools," and I refer to the centrally-managed public schools as "monopoly schools." It is obnoxious, to be sure, insofar as almost nobody believes that monopolies are good things in the abstract, but the term does honestly capture the true sentiments of their proponents: that it is somehow good for everybody to go to the same schools, learn from the same curriculum, and benefit from, or suffer from, that shared experience. It is also an accurate term, since more than 90% of American students attending school go to monopoly schools.


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