Friday, April 2, 2010

Tuition Free?

OK, Pet Peeve Time, readers of The Educated Reporter. Why is that so many charter schools in their promotional messages describe themselves as "tuition free"? I understand that people often are confused about what charter schools are or are not, but they are emphatically public schools, not private schools.

At a recent meeting I attended where a new Baton Rouge charter school was selling itself, the school's director used this "tuition free" phrase. He said he'd worked at private schools and public schools and that charter schools were in the middle, "the best of both worlds." Now, I understand a bit of what he's saying -- they are open to everyone, but have more freedom than traditional public schools -- but come on! These are public schools, no question. Yes, some raise private money on the side to supplement their budgets, but so do many traditional public schools. The best explanation for selling yourself in this way, to me, is to persuade parents interested in private schools, but who can't afford them, that going to a charter school is equivalent to attending a private school and doing so for free! Charter schools, while given some freedom, still have loads of laws to abide by that put them in the same family as traditional public schools. To my mind, it's purposely misleading.

I have seen this "tuition free" wording elsewhere in Louisiana. And a Google search of the phrase "tuition free charter school" produced 86,000 hits just now, so we're not alone on this. It would be nice if charter schools would stop pretending and embrace the fact that they are public schools to all audiences.

(By the way, I've been slow to post this week. I've got some OK excuses, but I know you all expect more while Linda is off. I will try to make it up to you on this Good Friday with some thoughtful posts. Never fear, The Educated Reporter herself is scheduled to return next week.)


  1. Charles - same thing here in Texas. A coworker just got a postcard about a new charter opening in his neighborhood, and it says "NO TUITION" on the front.

  2. My impression is that most charters bend over backwards to make sure people know they are public. The charter where I used to work actually has "public charter" in its name. Ditto for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Charters are slammed in the media and the legislatures for exclusivity, creaming, not being accountable, etc. so why would they want to brand themselves as quasi-privates? Agree with Matt that "tuition free" is the most straightforward means of messaging to parents.

  3. Charles,

    The families served by charter schools may not be as in tune with the semantics as you. They need clear information. This isn't hoodwinking, it's not a bait'n'switch. To present it as such defies both reality and common sense.

    Really, "raises [your] suspicions" about what, exactly?

  4. Surveys show that very few people understand what a charter school is and isn't, therefore the charter schools have to educate them when recruiting students. Charter schools are often contrasted with public schools, rather than acknowledged as public schools, so it's no wonder parents might think they charge tuition. Similarly, charter schools have to explain the random lottery process, since parents often think there's some kind of selection process.

  5. Alexander Hoffman, a Teachers College graduate student, is conducting a philosophical/semantic debate on this very topic on the site. He concludes charter schools are NOT public schools. He and I have exchanged some comments on this topic at, the new Hechinger Report blog. Richard

  6. As a volunteer public education advocate, I'm a sharp critic of charter schools and of the frequent fawning, unquestioning treatment they receive from the press (mostly not from education reporters, but rather from editorial writers, columnists and general-assignment reporters who don't get the complexities). But in my opinion, the question of whether charters can legitimately be called public schools is an unimportant side issue, and so is the motivation behind the "tuition-free" device.

    I disagree with Cecilia Le's implication that charter schools are excessively "slammed in the media." I admittedly have a strong perspective and haven't made any kind of story count or column-inch count, but I'm a voracious media consumer, and I'm certain that the mainstream press gushing and fawning over charter schools would far outweigh any slamming if there WERE such a survey. (Not even just the mainstream press. An "edgy" new media project run out of the UC-Berkeley J-school covering San Francisco's Mission District recently posted a feature on a proposed new charter school -- quoting only charter advocates with positive views of the proposed school; not a peep from any critics.)

    And I vigorously object to RiShawn Biddle's mischaracterization of Diane Ravitch's thoughtful, soul-searching commentary as "nasty rhetoric."

  7. "but they are emphatically public schools, not private schools."

    Well, even if they are not private schools, that does not mean that they necessarily are public schools. That's a false dichotomy.

    As I have written over on Gotham Schools -- and this is MUCH more than just a semantic issue -- charter schools are emphatically neither traditional public schools nor traditional private schools. They are some things in common with the former, and some with the latter. But clearly, neither of these labels really capture what is going there.

    There are something different, and we should allow the old classification to misrepresent what they are, why or how they should be supported, or what may be expected of them.

    While I do not love the term, in other sectors they have long spoken of "quasi-public" organizations. That is a FAR more appopriate label than "public" or "private." And because it is not necessarily obvious how charter schools differ from public schools, once one acknowledges that there are similarities and differences, it makes sense to explain that they are "tuition free."

    Mr. Lussier clearly does not understand that most people are not as knowledgeable about charter schools than he is, and might have some particular reasons that he is not revealing for insisting that "public" is obvious answer.

  8. Well, one key point, Mr. Hoffman, is the dishonesty in which much of the charter sector engages: the pretense that (in the case of charter schools with more applicants than openings, which is not true of all charters) students are chosen impartially by lottery from the full spectrum of students and families -- and the sin of omission in concealing the attrition/push-outs/"counseling out" that goes on so widely in many charter schools.

    The most successful charter school here in my school district, San Francisco Unified -- Gateway High School -- uses an application process similar to a private school's, but claims to select by lottery. The process requires teacher recommendations, an essay, parent and student signed commitments to this-n-that, transcripts, etc. Well, even if there is NO reviewing of those applications and all students are genuinely put into a blind lottery, clearly that process self-selects for more-motivated and higher-functioning applicants. The ****ed-up won't be darkening their door. And of course that's true of the KIPPs and similar charters too. It's obviously false to portray those schools as enrolling a cross-section of the community.

    So these schools are more similar to private schools in that way, but the real issues are the creaming of the higher-functioning students and the dumping of the lower-functioning on the true public schools -- and the never-ending dishonesty about it -- not whether they're more more like public or more like private. IMHO, anyway.

  9. The question, Alexander, is no longer what is a "public school". We should be beyond that; the needs of the children -- especially the poorest children urban suburban or rural, the ones who look like I did when I was a child, about whom I care the most -- are far more important than the semantics games in which you indulge. For one, state and federal law has answered the question: Charter schools are public schools as defined under law. Period. That's what matters. Also, to be honest it's a waste of time that doesn't actually help children, especially the poorest children.

    The question is how to be best-achieve the goal, the dream of Martin Luther King, that every child gains the equal opportunity of the highest-quality education possible. This is ultimately achievable by abandoning the traditional definition of public education -- a school district that runs school buildings -- but by a more-expansive system of funding the best choices for each child. It doesn't matter whether the child wants to attend a traditional public school, a public charter, a Catholic school or one run by Mavis Carter. The matter is whether they get the best education possible and that we make sure that the money is there to make it happen.

  10. But when a charter school does benefit a child -- which is by no means guaranteed as a great many charter schools are riddled with fraud, scams, abuse and failure -- they benefit that child at the expense of the vast majority of other children, especially the poorest children. In those few specialized cases where charters help poor children, they harm other poor children. That is the opposite of the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.