Front Page - Search 

Taking note . . .

Observations about public affairs in the nation’s capital
by the editor of The Common Denominator

ENDING A MISNOMER: Journalists – especially newspaper journalists – are supposed to be sticklers for accuracy in the use of language, and we intend to be. Readers from this point forward will notice the term "public charter school" in fewer stories published by The Common Denominator, because the phrase is misleading the public. We will use the term only when it is part of an official name.

"Public" is accurate as a description of the charter, which is issued by a publicly selected governing body and permits the school's owner-operator to receive public funds for educating children. However, charter schools are not "public" schools – which is the incorrect way members of the public and many government officials have interpreted the adjective, with (not surprisingly) no objection from advocates of the charter school movement.

Charter schools are generally owned and operated by legally incorporated nonprofit organizations, which are not required to allow public access to all of their financial records or meetings of their decision-making trustees.

The Common Denominator has learned that an internal opinion from the D.C. Public Charter School Board's legal counsel deemed that the Freedom of Information Act, which compels public disclosure of most government documents, does not apply to charter schools. In other words, they are required to disclose only what they agreed to disclose as a condition of receiving and maintaining their public charter.

Unfortunately, some D.C. government officials appear to be siding with the charter school movement against the public's interest in maintaining control of how its tax dollars are spent and how land-use decisions are made. On May 11, the D.C. Zoning Commission will hold a public hearing on the Williams administration's request to amend the city's zoning regulations to include charter schools in the definition of "public schools" – which would allow these privately owned and operated schools to avoid a now-required public hearing process before locating their facility in some residential areas.

Another clarification may be in order regarding the description of children who are enrolled in charter schools. Charter schools are open to all D.C. schoolchildren, not just "D.C. Public Schools" students. Some of the children being drawn to charter schools may, in fact, be transferring from private or parochial schools, where they previously paid tuition, or from other jurisdictions as their parents relocate to the nation's capital.

It also is unlikely that the 10,000 students who have left the District's public school system during the past decade all enrolled in D.C. charter schools. This misconception fails to recognize that thousands of D.C. families have been displaced from demolished public housing complexes during the same period, and many may have been forced to relocate outside of the District.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator