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When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders fielded a question about charter schools at a Democratic Party presidential primary town hall recently, his answer left a lot of folks scratching their heads.

Specifically, when an audience member asked, "Are charter schools a viable way to educate low-income kids, or would you use resources for public schools?” Sanders replied, "I believe in public education and I believe in public charter schools. I do not believe in private [pause] privately controlled charter schools."

Commentators in the education arena were grateful to see their topic finally getting airtime in the presidential election, but most could not make heads or tails of what Sanders meant. Many pointed out technically there is, for the most part, no such thing as a "private charter school." Others noted the contradiction in his support for "public charter schools" while objecting to "privately controlled charter schools." Virtually all charter schools get public funding but are indeed privately controlled.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, on her personal blog, concluded, "I am convinced that Senator Sanders does not know much about charter schools."

Curiously, few commentators considered the meaning of Sander's stumble over whether he objected to "private" or "privately controlled" charter schools. In fact, nearly everyone who quoted Sanders failed to include that momentary distinction Sanders seemed to make between a "private" school and a "privately controlled" school. Is there a difference?

Indeed there is, which is where the confusion about charter schools all stems from.

Public, Private, And… What?

Americans don't need to have the concept of "private schools" defined for them.

There is, however, widespread confusion about charter schools. A 2014 PDK-Gallup poll found about half of respondents said they believed charter schools weren’t public. Charter school advocates will tell you those people are "wrong," but perhaps what the poll reveals mostly is that 100 percent of the public is confused.

For instance, charter schools can't legally charge admission as a private school would do. But there have been numerous news reports of charter schools charging mandatory fees for discipline infractions, dress code violations, student enrollment, school supplies, even "not making eye contact with the teacher." These fees could have the perception of an admission price.

Also, charter schools can't legally practice selective admission. But many charters have enrollment practices that bear a resemblance to a selective process. An investigation by Reuters in 2013 found charter schools that erect all kinds of hurdles in order to apply for attendance, including lengthy applications, family interviews, and document requirements that are illegal in public school admission processes.

The Reuters article notes, "Thousands of charter schools don't provide subsidized lunches, putting them out of reach for families in poverty."

Charter schools in many places don't offer transportation, which also makes them prohibitive for some families. Some charter schools require parents to volunteer in the school to ensure their children's seat, which can also discourage kids from low-income families from attending.

Charter schools that have waiting lists often use a lottery process, which also can be a form of selective enrollment because only the most motivated families will undergo the lottery.

No wonder people are confused.

Even reporters from NPR and the Christian Science Monitor who reported on Sanders's confused statement about charter schools made errors in describing charter schools. Both said charters are required to staff their classrooms with certified teachers, which is not true.

According to information from Education Commission of the States, a number of states, including Arizona and Texas, have no such requirement. Many more states, including North Carolina and New York, require only a percentage of a charter school's teaching staff to be certified. One third of recruits of Teach for America – including, according to Ravitch, Sanders' questioner – work in charter schools and are not certified teachers.

So no, charter schools are not private schools. But because of the ways in which they are privately controlled, they aren't really public, either.

A Twilight Zone

The truth is charter schools inhabit a sort of twilight zone in the legal distinction of what is public versus what is private.

A recent policy brief from the National Education Policy Center examines the quasi-public-private status of charter schools in depth and finds that a large portion of these schools are run by private corporations, which distinguishes them from public schools in significant ways.

For instance, when charter schools outsource management services to for-profit management firms, as is increasingly the case, the schools' administration generally is no longer subject to the same disclosure laws that apply to state-operated entities and public officials.

The very nature of charters, the authors state, results in a “substantial share of public expenditure intended for the delivery of direct educational services to children…being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain.”

Further, the brief’s authors Bruce Baker and Gary Miron – university professors from Rutgers and Eastern Michigan, respectively – note the public-private arrangement of charter schools often places new limits on the constitutional (and some statutory) protections that are customarily guaranteed to school employees and students in state-operated institutions.

This limit on protections has huge ramifications for students enrolled in charter schools and teachers who work in them. On the Edushyster blog operated by Jennifer Berkshire, Preston Green explains those potential ramifications.

Green, a professor of law and educational leadership, has been monitoring a series of court rulings regarding the rights of students and teachers in charter schools and has reached conclusions that should rattle anyone's belief that charter schools are truly "public" institutions.

"State and federal courts have issued rulings suggesting that students attending California charter schools do not have the same due process rights as those enjoyed by public-school students," Green writes.

For instance, one court ruling "characterized charter schools as 'schools of choice' that children were not required to attend." Green argues that giving charter school this special status means they can potentially legally dismiss students without due process and refuse to enroll these dismissed students.

Green also points to a court case in which a teacher claimed that a charter school had fired him without due process, thus depriving him of his civil rights. "The court ruled," he explains, "that the charter school statute exempted the corporation from all rules related to school districts, including rules requiring hearings after dismissals."

The special legal status charter schools may enjoy is particularly alarming in light of the tendencies these institutions already have to churn through students and teachers like a thresher through a bushel of wheat.

Numerous studies have found that charter schools suspend students at rates far higher than at public schools. These students are disproportionately, according to a new study reported on by Education Week, more often to be children of color and children with learning disabilities.

Charter schools also have a reputation for losing teachers at rates far higher than their public counterparts. A comprehensive analysis of the research, conducted by policy analyst Matthew Di Carolo of the Albert Shanker Institute, found that the odds of charter teachers exiting their teaching positions are "33 percent higher than those of regular public school teachers."

The Fog Of War

"What makes a school public?" Baker and Miron ask in their NEPC brief.

To answer that question, they examine charter schools from a "formalist definition," in other words, whether a school is owned and/or controlled by government entities or whether elected bodies oversee the schools' activities.

From this perspective, they find, "Many charter schools come up short on this definition."

Baker and Miron also consider charters from a more "functionalist definition of public," too – whether the "outcomes produced by the school" are in the public's interests. From this standpoint, the authors feel the track record for charter schools is mixed at best.

Most of us, however, don't have the luxury of splitting the definition of public vs. private vs. privately controlled into such fine threads.

We increasingly see how the scant resources already allotted to schools are being further divided between what are traditionally considered, but now frequently absent, "the basics" of what every school should provide and something else – a charter school – that is not well understood.

This concern, more than anything else, is what is behind what is becoming widely referred to as "the charter wars."

So given these circumstances, one can forgive Bernie Sanders for getting caught in the fog.

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