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South Bend Tribune

Viewpoint: Understanding the “public” in public schools

By Stuart Greene,

2023-03-14
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Proposed legislation in the Indiana Senate and a recent op-ed in The Tribune have sought to redefine what it means to be a public school. The question is what is at stake for legislators and owners of charter schools who insist on describing all schools that receive public money as “public.” If all schools are public, then what distinguishes one school from another? And who decides how to most accurately describe public?

At least one Indiana legislator has a simple answer. State Sen. Linda Rogers states that “Charter schools are public schools. The taxpayers paid for public education for the children of that community.” The Indiana state legislature adopted this position and has now sought to solidify the argument that all schools are public in policy. Policy determines how resources are distributed in the state budget. Technically, any charter school can call itself a public school. Saying so does not make it true.

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Public schools have a long history that should matter to taxpayers who have embraced the democratic ideals of public education, the commitment to egalitarian principles, as well as the importance of inclusion, transparency and accountability. Public schools are like libraries and parks, open to all. Public schools hold out the promise that taxpayers have a voice in school finance, infrastructure and policy. The public elects nonpartisan boards that meet regularly in public forums where open discussion focuses on school matters. There is always a segment that is open to public comments.

Public schools are open to all. Administrators can’t turn students away on the basis of characteristics such as ability or identity. Public schools must adhere to the laws protecting the interests of children against discrimination, who do not have a permanent home, foster children who often lack stability and children who are differently-abled under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. Charters are not required to provide programs that meet all special needs; they don't necessarily turn students down, but if a school tells you that they do not offer the program that your child needs, will you really enroll there?

Public schools serve the public good. That’s why we fund them with our tax dollars — because we expect them to serve all of us. When students walk out the door of a charter school, they cease to be the charter's responsibility. But as long as a student lives within the public school's designated area, that student is the district's responsibility.

The view that all schools are public has raised the possibility that all schools can work together. Such a view informed Albert Shanker’s conceptions of charters over 40 years ago. He envisioned charters as laboratories for teaching and learning that existed outside the confines of state requirements. In turn, educators in charter schools would share what they learned with teachers in traditional public schools.

However, the lack of a level playing field for all public schools is evident in two specific ways. First, state Sen. Rogers has proposed legislation to make it easier for charter schools — private entities with little accountability to voters who pay taxes — to gain access to under-enrolled school buildings in traditional public schools for $1. Second, Rogers has proposed a bill that will divert property tax revenue from schools and local governments to pay for infrastructure like streets, sidewalks and sewers in new housing developments.

Meanwhile, while the state legislature has proposed an increased budget for education for the next two years, the budget appropriation for traditional public schools in the South Bend School Corp. would increase by only 4% next year and 0.7% the following year. That’s nowhere close to the current or expected rate of inflation.

The proposed budget legislation would expand the voucher program to include families that make up to 7.4 times the federal poverty level: $222,000 next year for a family of four. Overall, the state would spend $1.1 billion on vouchers over two years, double the current spending rate. How does Ways and Means Committee Chair Jeff Thompson define accountability? “If voucher schools don’t produce, parents will walk away and go elsewhere.” Many families do not have that luxury, particularly those who send their children to traditional public schools.

Calling all schools public obscures the very nature of education as a public good. Moreover, the subsidy that exists to support charter schools and vouchers in Indiana ignores those children who attend the state’s underfunded public schools. These are children for whom resources necessary for human flourishing remain out of reach for most American families. Let legislators know that it is unacceptable to continue eroding funding for traditional public schools.

Stuart Greene is a member of the South Bend School Corp. board of trustees, representing District 5.

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