Friday, March 18, 2016

District, Charter and Private Schools: A Primer

Posted By on Fri, Mar 18, 2016 at 12:15 PM

Sometimes I see comments on my posts or I hear education talk from friends and others that let me know, lots of people are confused about the difference between district schools, charter schools and private schools. So here's a basic—very basic—description of the three types of schools. There's lots more to say, lots of subtle and not-so-subtle similarities and differences, but these are the basics.

School districts and all the schools inside them are publicly funded. They get a mixture of state, federal and local funds distributed on a per student basis. The students attend for free.

Charter schools are also publicly funded. They also get a mix of government funds—not an identical mix but also allotted on a per student basis—and their students also attend for free, no tuition required. Sometimes charters have students pay fees for some supplies or activities (so do school districts, though generally not as often), and some of them beg, cajole and guilt parents into contributing to the school. But if a child gets in, he or she walks through the front door the first day without having to pay for the privilege. And—this is important—charter schools can't be religious schools.

Private schools are privately funded and privately run educational institutions, and they charge tuition. They can be directly affiliated with any religious denomination. In fact, more than 70 percent of private schools in Arizona and nationwide have a religious affiliation.

School districts are called "public schools" (or sometimes, pejoratively, "government schools"), but should charters also be called "public schools"? That's a matter of definition. They're publicly funded but privately run, which means they have one foot in the public sector and the other foot in the private sector. Tucson voters elect the members of the TUSD school board. Charter schools create their boards some other way, not through public election, so the general public has very little say in how they're run. Some charters are run as nonprofits, and in some states, like Arizona, they can also be for-profit enterprises. However, their students take the same high stakes state tests as kids in district schools, while private schools aren't required to take the tests. All this creates a great deal of confusion. When some people say "public school," they're referring only to school districts, while others mean both district and charter schools. Some people try to distinguish district schools by calling them "traditional schools," but that's a very misleading term. Districts often contain schools that use alternative, non-traditional methods, and some charters are rigidly traditional. I use the terms "district schools" and "charter schools" because those are the only terms I know where everyone agrees on their meanings.

Those are the basics. If you want a more complex look at what goes into charter schools, which are a confusing, complex hybrid of public and private, here's a good analysis. The author isn't fond of charters, but his description of the institutions is solid.

So, when you're talking high stakes tests and school funding issues like Prop 123, you're talking about both district and charter schools. If you're talking vouchers—Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or tax credits that go to School Tuition Organizations—you're talking private schools (and in the case of ESAs, home schooling as well).

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