Don’t Talk to Me About ‘Privatization,’ Because Your ‘Public’ School Is Hardly Public

Jan 11, 2017 12:00:00 AM


In Oakland, one of the highest achieving schools in the city is Hillcrest Elementary. It’s a “public” school that is 5 percent free and reduced-price lunch, 2 percent English-language learners, 8 percent Latino and 8 percent Black. In the neighborhood surrounding this “public” school, the average housing price is $1.6 million. Now, you’ll excuse me if I use the word “public” in quotes when I talk about Hillcrest, but sometimes I wonder what’s so “public” about a school that only admits students whose families can buy their way into an exclusive enclave. But my bullshit meter really explodes when I hear folks whose kids go to schools like Hillcrest say that charter schools aren’t public schools. Compared to what? Your “public” school? My criticism extends to gifted and talented programs and selective high schools that exist in districts across the country. Too often, the highest performing public schools look nothing like the rest of the district and seem to be doing nothing to increase equity. In fact it looks like quite the opposite. So please, before you judge a charter school and start talking about “privatization,” take a hard look. Where I live in California, the data is all public and online. What are the demographics of the school? How is it performing? If charters aren’t serving the “public” or serving them well, that’s one thing. But if they are, and the “public” schools aren’t, then what?

Serving the Public

This has been on my mind lately because there are a host of schools coming up for renewal right now in Oakland, including Ascend, Learning Without Limits, Oakland Charter High School and KIPP Bridge. The reports are online and so is most of the data. Ascend and Learning Without Limits (full disclosure I sit on the board of both of these schools) were a community response to the lack of accountability from an unelected school board (these schools were converted from district schools after Oakland Unified School District was put into state receivership). They were the same exact kids, except rather than a state appointee running the school, it was a local nonprofit charter board, including two elected parents.
  • Ascend is 90 percent free and reduced-price lunch and 63 percent of the students are English-language learners. They haven’t expelled a student in 10 years. They have shown outstanding academic results.
  • Learning Without Limits is 96 percent free and reduced-price lunch and 46 percent of its students are English-language learners. It’s the top elementary school in the Fruitvale academically and third in Oakland among schools that serve low-income students. Zero expulsions in 10 years.
  • Oakland Charter High School is over 85 percent free and reduced-price lunch, and is one of the top-performing high schools in the city. It received a Silver Medal from U.S. News & World Report, and over 90 percent of seniors are accepted to 4-year colleges.
  • KIPP Bridge’s student body is 86 percent free and reduced-price lunch and 61 percent Black. More than half of their entering students are at the lowest reading level, yet 95 percent of their middle-school graduates finish high school. I would pit their performance with Black students against any middle school in Oakland.
  • I recently attended the board meeting for ARISE Charter School, and I can tell you that many low-income kids from Oakland Flatlands are getting amazing experiences there. Again, a school that is 95 percent low-income students of color and boasts a 90 percent 4-year college acceptance rate.
Please, show me how these are not “public” schools. The “publicness” of a school isn’t based on whether the district runs it. Think about it: Legally, segregated schools were “public.” So can we please move beyond this tired rhetoric? If we care about equity in our public schools, we need to stop looking at which bureaucracy is administering and instead look at who the school is serving and how well those kids are doing. To my mind, that would be a much better definition of “public.” However, if someone wants to convince me with some facts that a district school that is 5 percent free and reduced-price lunch is more public than a charter serving 95 percent free and reduced-price lunch, I’d love to hear it. I will even publish it on my blog over at Or just let me know what you think below in the comments. I’m all ears.
An original version of this post appeared on Great School Voices as The 'Privatization' Debate we Need.

Dirk Tillotson

Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his parents moved their family to a high-performing school district where they were the first Black family on the block. The challenges of that experience embedded in him a desire to create academically high-quality schools where students don’t have to check their identities at the door. Dirk currently resides in Oakland, California, and blogs at Great School Voices.

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