Follow Up on Why Publicness/Privateness of Charter Schools Matters

May 7, 2012

My post the other day was intended to shed light on the various complexities of classifying charter schools as public or private. Some have argued that the distinctions I make are a distraction from the bigger policy issues. The point was not to address those issues, but rather to dispose of the misinformed rhetoric that charter schools are necessarily public in every way that traditional public schools are. They clearly are not. And the distinctions made in my previous post have important implications not only for teachers employment rights (or any school employee), but also for student rights. Further, it is really, really important that teachers considering their options and parents considering their options understand these distinctions and make fully informed choices.

Preston Green of Penn State University [co-author of Charter Schools and the Law] offered the following comments on my previous post:

Charter schools are always characterized as “public schools.” Many parents assume that they would receive the same constitutional rights in charter schools as other public schools. In fact, I use to think this.

My thinking changed when I spoke at a workshop for charter school attorneys. Several attorneys insisted that they were not beholden to federal constitutional and statutory provisions. They cited the Ninth Circuit’s Caviness decision, in which the Ninth Circuit held that a charter school was not a state actor with respect to employment issues. These attorneys insisted that the same logic applied to student issues as well.

This is especially concerning for black males. Researchers have consistently found that black male students are disproportionately subjected to school discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions. In public schools, the Due Process Clause protects them from arbitrary suspensions and expulsions. For example, in Pennslyvania,schools must provide students with an informal hearing for out-of-school suspensions from 4-10 days (22 Pennsylvania Code § 12.8, 2012). The school must provide parents with written notification of the time and the place of the hearing. The student has the write to speak and produce witnesses at the hearing as well as the right to question witnesses present at the hearing.

Pennsylvania regulations also require formal hearings for school exclusions of more than 10 days (22 Pennsylvania Code § 12.8, 2012). Formal hearings require the school to provide parents with a copy of the expulsion policy, notice that the student may obtain counsel, and the procedures for the expulsion hearing. The student has the power to cross-examine, testify, and present witnesses. Further, the school must maintain an audio recording of the hearing.

If charter schools are not public actors, then constitutional law would not apply. I have argued that courts might apply contract law, as is generally the case for private schools. If a private school “has clearly stated the rule, preferably in writing, and a parent chooses to have his or her child attend the school, a court will generally uphold the rule” (Shaughnessy, 2003, p. 527). For example, in Flint v. Augustine High School (1975), a Louisiana private school expelled two students for violating its no smoking policy. The school’s handbook called for a fine of $5 for the first offense, and a penalty of either a $10 fine or an expulsion for the second offense. The state court of appeals upheld the suspension of the students. In reaching this decision, the court declared that private institutions “have a near absolute right and power to control their own internal disciplinary procedure which, by its very nature, includes the right and power to dismiss students” (p. 234). Although the court allowed that due process protections could not “be cavalierly ignored or disregarded,” it held that “if there is color of due process – that is enough” (p. 235).

In Hernandez v. Bosco Preparatory High (1999), a New Jersey court for the first time addressed the question of the procedural rights of expelled private high school students. It found that constitutional law did not apply to private high schools. Interestingly, the court found that high school students would receive less protection than private university students.

I raise these points because parents may be unwittingly giving up their constitutional protections to attend charter schools. One has to wonder whether parents would enroll their children if they were aware of this possibility.

The distinction is important. And it’s a distinction that may occur at many levels of the system, as I explained in the previous post. Again, this is not to say that publicness/privateness necessarily speaks to substantive differences in school quality for children, or workplace quality for employees.  As I’ve mentioned numerous times on my blog, my best teaching job was at an elite private (no doubt, no ambiguity, private) school. My worst was at a different private school, with two public districts in between – one much better than the other. The issues of publicness/privateness proved inconsequential to me personally during my time as a teacher (mainly because I left the worst private school before I decided to engage in any [more] battles). But to others they may not, and it is important to understand the distinction. At least a few teachers in privately governed charter schools have already been blindsided by misinformed assumptions that they possess public employee protections.  Given the comments of Preston Green above, I suspect student rights cases are not far behind.

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce D. Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in school finance policy and district business management. His recent research focuses on state aid allocation policies and practices, with particular...