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Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: What is a public school?

Mr. Gibbons' Report CardWayne Au, University of Washington at Bothell

Wayne Au, an education professor and plaintiff in League of Women Voters v. State (the case that found charter schools unconstitutional in Washington) claims charter schools aren’t public schools.

Au’s actually conflating the word “public school” with the concept of the “common school,” a 19th-century form of public-education that doesn’t apply to all 21st-century public schools.

Au concludes: “If a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds.” First, the elected school board of Spokane, WA approved a charter school, and that was overturned by the Supreme Court too — an inconvenient fact neither Au nor the state Supreme Court has bothered to address.

Second, not every public education institution is subject to direct, democratic control. Even the University of Washington, which employs Au, is governed by unelected appointees, yet is financed in part by the same public funds charter schools are now prohibited from touching.

“Public schools” have been defined by how they’re financed (public support through taxation) and the purpose they serve (educating the public) — not the specific method of governance. Yes, charter schools are public schools.

Grade: Needs Improvement

Boston Students


Lawyers from rival firms filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of several Boston area students who couldn’t get seats in local charter schools. Boston charter schools are among the most effective schools in city, perhaps even the state. But state law caps the number of charter schools at 34.

The brief states, “All these children ask is that the court remove an arbitrary impediment to their ability to obtain a quality education.”

This lawsuit represents yet another legal dispute centered around a student’s right to a quality education. In this case, the limited options for Boston students may be preventing school children from exercising those rights.

Grade: Satisfactory

Robert Avossa, Palm Beach County School District

The beach at Palm Beach
The beach of Palm Beach

Large urban school districts have a ton of stakeholders, from the teachers to the central administration staffers to all the support services operations. That’s a lot of people and institutions that like things just the way they are. For a superintendent who’s new in town, it’s also a lot of reasons not to disrupt the status quo.

But in his words, fear of upsetting the status quo isn’t weighing on the mind of new Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa.

His recent statements suggest he’s looking to join the ranks of Florida’s more forward-thinking district leaders. According to StateImpact, Avossa said:

Avossa wants students to have classes as unique as the personalized Nikes his son orders online.“In five minutes he designs his own shoe.

It’s at my house from China in two days,” Avossa says. “That same child who has that customized world at home then comes to the school house and sits in perfect little rows. Asked to open up a book…and read what everybody else is reading.”

As for traditional school days and school years? Avossa doesn’t see the one-size-fits-all model in Palm Beach’s future:

“We’ve got kids who instead of 180 days a school year – which is, on average, what the national child goes to school – need to be `190, 200, 220,” he says. “There are kids who should never leave our schools.”

In other words, no summer vacation. But he thinks students who have the lessons down cold should be able to move faster. Let Florida’s brightest students move as fast as they can. Maybe graduate early.

It’s great to see a school district leader pondering ideas for longer school years and more customization. Avossa’s words suggest he wants to build a system around students’ needs. We’re eager to see how they translate into actions.

Grade: Satisfactory

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.