Why Charter Schools are Billed as “Tuition Free”

Jerry Seinfeld

Charles Lussier is filling in for Linda Perlstein over at The Educated Reporter this week. Today’s rant is about the use of “tuition free” to describe charter schools. You can almost hear him channeling his inner-Seinfeld and asking the world, “So what’s the deal with tuition free?!?” Here we go:

“OK, Pet Peeve Time, readers of The Educated Reporter. Why is that so many charter schools in their promotional messages describe themselves as “tuition free”? I understand that people often are confused about what charter schools are or are not, but they are emphatically public schools, not private schools.”

That has nothing to do with the issue of why charter schools bill themselves as “tuition free.” He continues:

“At a recent meeting I attended where a new Baton Rouge charter school was selling itself, the school’s director used this “tuition free” phrase. He said he’d worked at private schools and public schools and that charter schools were in the middle, “the best of both worlds.” Now, I understand a bit of what he’s saying — they are open to everyone, but have more freedom than traditional public schools — but come on! These are public schools, no question. Yes, some raise private money on the side to supplement their budgets, but so do many traditional public schools.”

Again, that has nothing to do with the issue of why charter schools bill themselves as “tuition free.” The real whine:

“The best explanation for selling yourself in this way, to me, is to persuade parents interested in private schools, but who can’t afford them, that going to a charter school is equivalent to attending a private school and doing so for free! Charter schools, while given some freedom, still have loads of laws to abide by that put them in the same family as traditional public schools. To my mind, it’s purposely misleading.”

No, Charles. You’ve missed the point completely. Here’s what I wrote:


This is not a hard question, and it sure isn’t a mystery.

This is a simple PR issue.

Many parents – especially parents of children who can benefit most from charter schools – don’t realize that “charter school” means “at no cost to you.” So, a school bills itself in promotional literature/advertisements as “tuition free” to let parents know that they won’t have to pay a tuition bill to have their child attend.

Yes, it is that simple. End of story.

Perhaps the EWA blog should be renamed to “Educate A Reporter.” This time the lesson was tuition free.

8 Responses to “Why Charter Schools are Billed as “Tuition Free””

  1. Deven Black says:

    Charter schools may be tuition free and they may receive public money, but that does not make them public schools.

    There is one clear and compelling difference between public schools and privately-run charter schools:

    Public schools are answerable to the public, charter schools are not.

    End of story.

  2. Deven,

    As I said on Twitter, that’s not Lussier’s gripe. If a passel of edu-folks want to sit around and argue about whether a charter is a real public school or not, they’re welcome to have the debate.

    … but that’s a very different question than, “Why do charter schools say they’re ‘tuition free?’”

  3. Chris says:

    Charter schools are answerable to the public. That is who provides their funding. They are not micromananged by the public, but a charter that is failing in the public’s eye (ideally by objective measures) can have its charter revoked, and its funding cut off. Beyond that, a charter school must continually justify its existance through charter renewal.

  4. Chris,

    In summary, I agree with you. Richard Lee Colvin of The Hechinger Report tried to steer folks to a discussion about the public school issue – even though he seemed not to comprehend that the post was about whether charters were right to be billed as tuition free, as the post title not-so-subtly suggests – and seems to think it’s a valid topic of debate. I find little of the discussion useful, mostly because the reasons you pointed out cover the bases so well.

  5. Though it is probably as suggested, “going to a charter school is equivalent to attending a private school and doing so for free!”. The cynic in me suggests that they bill themselves as tuition free because after all public schools in the neighborhood are closed they can start charging tuition. Though I don’t believe myself either.

  6. Bernard says:

    It’s not so clear, numbnuts. Charters run by for-profit companies like Civitas are now claiming that they are NOT public and that their teachers are NOT public employees. The reason? To break attempts at unionization of course. Public employees have an easier time getting NLRB recognition that do private ones. For-profits are claiming that because their name is on the teachers’ pay checks, card check doesn’t apply. So it’s not–”End of story.”

  7. Brendan,

    I’m not sure about any conspiracies to charge tuition – nor any charter laws that could really let that happen – but sometimes schools charge money. A perfect example was raised by someone on Twitter. His child’s school, which is a fully public, traditional school, charges for full-day kindergarten. Apparently half-day is covered and free, additional costs for full-day are covered by families who desire full-day kindergarten.

    … and that’s a public school that isn’t necessarily “tuition free.” It might seem like an obvious or simple point to make – though it’s surely sent Lussier’s mind for a spin – but it really is necessary for charters to assure parents that they won’t be responsible for additional charges.

  8. Bernard,

    Apologies, but you don’t have the good sense or the reading comprehension abilities to realize that my post was about why charter schools must bill themselves as “tuition free” – not a debate, semantic or otherwise, about whether charter schools are public schools. You’re in well-regarded company, though, as Richard Lee Colvin failed to comprehend that same point. I subtly tried to steer those who wanted to debate the charter/public issue to a venue where that debate is actually going on.

    You’re functionally illiterate, driven hard by a union agenda [as having commented on Comrade Klonsky's site suggests] or both.

    (My vote’s for both.)

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