Charter Schools Face Constant Challenge

Published September 1, 1998

Although charter schools are currently the fastest growing component of school choice, opponents in various states across the nation are raising such a variety of challenges to the schools that some may be forced to close, while others may never open even after being awarded charters.

The challenges the charter schools face include lawsuits filed by school boards and teacher unions, diversity quotas, local zoning requirements, and interference from the U.S. Department of Justice.

No Waivers in New Jersey

It looked simple. The old mansion on Valley Road in Clifton, New Jersey, needed only two minor changes for conversion to the Classical Academy Charter School: a 2,000 square foot expansion of the parking lot and widening the entrance driveway by 10 feet. All that was needed was a waiver of the city’s steep-slope ordinance, which places controls on area development to prevent flooding and soil erosion.

But on July 23, the Clifton Planning Board refused to issue a waiver, delaying the opening of the school for a year and costing the school thousands of dollars for soil studies, geological reports, and a topographical map.

In Englewood, it was a different story. Since the city’s zoning code did not prohibit the operation of schools in industrial districts, a former warehouse on Coolidge Avenue seemed like an ideal location for Englewood’s first charter school, the Englewood on the Palisades Charter School. But on July 21, citing safety concerns, the City Council voted to change the zoning code, now prohibiting schools and churches from operating in industrial zones.

The charter school founders have located another site for the school, but its future remains under a cloud. The City Council and Board of Education have filed suit to prevent the school from opening on September 9, citing racial imbalance. While 3 percent of the students in Englewood public schools are white, 9 percent of those enrolled at the charter school are white.

Killer Quotas in North Carolina

Despite teaching in a church basement with ten rooms divided by paper-thin walls and spending only $5,200 a year per student (versus $8,000 in the public schools), Healthy Start Academy Charter School in Durham, North Carolina, delivered a remarkable performance record in its first year of operation. Kindergartners who started last year scoring at the 42nd percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills finished the year at the 99th percentile. Second-graders moved from the 34th percentile to the 75th.

But the State Board of Education may close the successful school because it has only a 1 percent white student enrollment, instead of the 55 percent required by a state law that requires charter schools to reasonably reflect “the racial and ethnic composition” of their communities. The state’s other 13 charter schools also fail to meet the state’s diversity standard.

Charter school advocate Vernon Robinson argues that “the desire for parents and students to learn should take precedence over the experts and their quest for diversity.”

The director of the state’s largest teacher union doesn’t agree, contending that segregated schools should be closed. “We have encouraged the State Board of Education to enforce the law,” John Wilson told The Wall Street Journal.

Lawsuits in California, Illinois, and Utah

Charter school applications in California have been put on hold because of a citizen lawsuit claiming that an expansion of the state charter law passed this spring allows “profiteers, or sects, or both” to take over public schools. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee teacher union filed suit in July to stop the city from implementing the first-ever city-run charter schools in the country, claiming that passage of the enabling legislation followed an unconstitutional procedure.

When suburban Cook County school districts failed to approve any charter school applications in 1996 and 1997, Illinois legislators passed a new law allowing the State Board of Education to override local charter proposal denials and directly approve charter schools. The State Board granted approval for the Thomas Jefferson Charter School in Arlington Heights, but the local school board struck back, filing a lawsuit alleging that the State Board had overstepped its authority. Another local school board has allocated $2,500 to support the legal fight.

The Arlington Heights School District 59 board is challenging the State Board’s authority to amend a charter proposal–for example, changing the starting date–and its authority to expropriate local tax dollars for a school chartered by the State Board. However, the State Board already has ruled that state-level approval of the charter means that the school would have access only to the state dollars sent to the local district. Since the suburban school district receives less than $250 per student from the state, this strictly limits the size of the charter school

A similar suit was filed on August 8 in Utah, where the Utah School Boards Association charged that giving the Utah State Board of Education control over charter schools usurps the power of local school boards and is unconstitutional. Utah charter school legislation was approved earlier this year, and two charter schools are scheduled to open in 1999.

Delayed in Louisiana

Because of opposition from the U.S. Department of Justice, a proposed charter school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, will not open this fall. Although the United Charter School had received approval from the local school board and superintendent, found a school site, selected a management company, agreed to comply with a desegregation consent decree, and agreed to serve at least 64 percent at-risk children, the U.S. Justice Department in July opposed the charter, creating at least a one-year delay because of court proceedings.

Local NAACP president Alvin Washington also raised concerns about the extent of public support for the school and its plans for transportation, disciplinary procedures, and the education of at-risk students.

Not All Public School Officials Oppose Charters

While charter schools have been challenged by all corners of the education establishment, there are some officials “in the trenches” who are supportive. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards, for example, sees charter schools as one of many important education innovations and encourages support not only from grassroots activists but also school administrators. And a recent survey reported in the Kansas City Star finds that 7 out of 10 candidates for local school board elections there favor the charter school concept.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].