What’s in a Name?

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege and pleasure of spending 45 minutes conversing with charter school champion and deep thinker Eric Premack. In addition to playing a central role in drafting California’s charter school law, funding system and policies, Mr. Premack has been a national education thought leader and front line charter school advocate for the past 30 years. He continues to serve as Executive Director of the Charter Schools Development Center, the California-based support and advocacy organization he founded shortly after the passage of the Charter Schools Act of 1992.

In light of recent developments in Oklahoma, where the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is widely expected to seek approval for the operation of a virtual religious charter school, I was eager to know Mr. Premack’s take on the question of whether charter schools should be regarded as ‘state actors’. In other words, I wanted to know whether he thought the courts should declare charter schools to be public schools, or private schools.

Given the current posture of the U.S. Supreme Court, the answer to that question could very well change the course of U.S. public and private K-12 education. As Chief Justice John Roberts has ruled: “A State need not subsidize private education, but once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” If the courts should determine that charter schools are private schools, it would be impermissible for states to withhold funding for religious charter schools.

Acknowledging both the significance and complexity of the question, Mr. Premack lamented the absence of an adjective that adequately describes the hybrid status of charter schools. “They are,” he said, “public, non-government schools.”

When I responded by referencing similar frustration with the term ‘private school’, Mr. Premack displayed immediate familiarity with the longstanding desire of private school leaders and stakeholders to find a substitute for ‘private’, one that possesses a more positive valence and avoids the connotation of exclusivity. Alas, such an alternative is elusive.

‘Independent School’ fits the bill quite nicely. But that term has long applied to a particular subset of private schools whose distinguishing characteristic consists of independent governance. Independent schools can be either secularly, or religiously oriented, as long as they are governed by boards, or other bodies that are not subject to the decisions or dictates of a ‘parent’ institution, or other organizational entity. A Catholic school governed by a board that is not beholden to the policies set by a diocese is known as an Independent Catholic school, in contradistinction to a diocesan Catholic school. Similarly, a Jewish school whose policies are subject to decisions made by the board of a ‘parent’ synagogue would fail to satisfy the criterion of independence. These understandings are deeply ingrained within the culture of American private education, effectively ruling out the application of the term ‘Independent Schools’ to the entirety of the K-12 private school enterprise.

Some have suggested the term ‘Non-Government Schools.” While accurate, this alternative also comes with drawbacks. It’s declarative only of what a school is not. (‘Non-Public School’ renders an even worse disservice in this regard, given the public good performed by the schools in question.) And as was noted above, the term ‘non-government’ might also be used to describe charter schools.

Indeed, it is difficult to find a term that is accurate, positive, and which can’t be claimed by both private schools and charter schools. ‘Community Schools’ doesn’t clear that barrier, and is also a legal term used to describe certain California public schools. So that doesn’t fly. ‘Voluntary Schools’ has a nice ring to it. Voluntarism is certainly a hallmark of private schools. But enrollment in a charter school reflects voluntary choices made by parents, as well. Ix-nay to that.

Thinking that ChatGPT might be of assistance, I fed the following question to the artificial intelligence chatbot: “What is a substitute for the term ‘private school’ that conveys independence from government, voluntary participation, and a desire to be inclusive?” Here’s what it churned out:

“’Independent school’ or ‘non-public school’ are both terms that convey independence from government and voluntary participation. To also convey a desire to be inclusive, you could use the term ‘inclusive independent school’ or ‘diverse non-public school.’ These terms suggest that the school values diversity and strives to create an inclusive environment for all students.”

That sounds…artificial.

Should any reader of these words have an improvement upon ‘private school’ in mind, bring it on! (The CAPSO blog version of this article allows for the submission of comments.) Absent the identification of an accurate, uniquely differentiating, positive and compelling substitute, I suppose we’ll just have to live with what we’ve got.

Whereas traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools each have their unique features, there exists a degree of overlap that muddles neat and clean categorizations. This conceptual messiness was addressed in an article titled, “What Is ‘Public’ About Public Education?” that was penned by American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess, in January, 2003. We’ve had two decades to mull over the issue. According to Eric Premack, the courts will be called upon to sort it out within the coming 3-5 years, and the consequences are likely to be profound.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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