A decision by the National Labor Relations Board in two separate cases last week stated that charter schools are not public schools, but are, in fact, private corporations.
While the decisions only apply to the cases in question, involving efforts to unionize at charter schools in New York and Pennsylvania, the labor board will now find themselves at the center of a debate concerning the nature of charter schools. Publicly funded but privately run, the institutions enroll close to three million students across the country.
Charter school advocates maintain that the schools are public schools, arguing that they are tuition-free, open-enrollment institutions with the majority of funding coming from tax dollars. However, critics such as union leaders say charters are in fact private entities that replace public schools. They add that the schools are run by elected officials with the help of nonprofit and for-profit corporations that are run by unelected boards and are held unaccountable by voters, writes Emma Brown for The Washington Post.
The pair of decisions issued by the board both came down on August 24, ruling that Hyde Leadership Charter School in Brooklyn and the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School are private corporations that receive taxpayer dollars. In addition, the board found that despite New York state law saying charter schools exist "within the public school system," the schools had not been established by a government entity, adding that the people who administer them are not held accountable to public officials or voters, reports Matt Barnum for The 74.
As a result of the decisions, employees of the schools must organize under the National Labor Relations Act, which applies to private-sector employees. They had been trying to organize under state laws applying to public sector employees.
Because charter schools are still relatively new, as the first law allowing the schools to operate was passed only 25 years ago, courts are still determining whether they should be considered public or private institutions. Carl Korn, spokesman for the New York State United Teachers, said that charter schools use this to their advantage:
"Charter management claims charters are public schools when they want taxpayers' money, but use legal maneuvers to hide from public audits, seek to evade the rules that govern public pre-K programs and, in this case, claim they are private schools when it comes to union representational elections," Korn told the Times-Union.
Meanwhile, Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, noted that the decisions made by the board are narrow and only apply to the two schools in question. While he did say that charter schools do differ from public schools in that they are exempt from a number of rules and regulations that apply to public schools, he concluded by saying that charter schools are public schools. He added that private schools are exclusive in ways that charter schools are not.
"They don't charge tuition and they don't have admissions requirements," Ziebarth said, and they are accountable to public officials in several ways, including through state legislators responsible for the state laws that govern how charter schools are approved and allowed to operate. "These are public schools and part of the public education system."