One Mold Charters Can't Break ; These Public Schools Could Be Swamped by Often-Costly and Inflexible Federal Regulations

Article excerpt

The United Charter School is designed to serve 1,200 children in a low-income neighborhood in Baton Rouge, La. It is widely supported by area residents, who are almost entirely African- American. It's in compliance with the Louisiana state charter law.

Yet the school's doors remain shut. The reason: United Charter runs afoul of a federal desegregation order requiring a racial balance in the parish's public schools. The US Department of Justice argues that the school will not attract enough white students.

The case has created a situation some call absurd. "You won't find 10 people in this parish, black or white, who are in agreement with what's being done," says Jim Geiser, one of United's organizers.

The United Charter imbroglio is just one facet of a larger problem of regulatory conflict. Charter schools are given great latitude on regulation in exchange for results. But the need to comply with often-costly federal civil rights requirements on racial balance and children with disabilities may prove to be a serious threat to the school-choice movement.

"If the laws are interpreted as they now stand, charter schools will take a real beating," says Frederick Hess, professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The ones that are the most useful will get hit the hardest. The smallest, the most urban, the ones serving kids with the most needs - one [disabled] kid with extreme needs is going to blow their whole cost structure."

Staying focused: First-graders keep pencils moving at Philadelphia's Harambee Institute for Science and Technology. Public charter schools like this one provide an alternative to regular public schools, but some are starting to face charges that they don't meet federal civil rights rules.

Regulations involving disabilities are as urgent a concern as racial balance. These laws could compel some charter schools to accept students with serious disabilities. Meeting the related government standards can cost as much as $17,000 per student or include services like a full-time aide for a single child.

Kathleen O'Sullivan, executive director of the 2-year-old Odyssey Charter School in Pasadena, Calif., says that as the parent of a child with a learning disability, she has long been an advocate for special education. But Ms. O'Sullivan now worries that special- education requirements will crush her fledgling school.

Special-needs students make up about 15 percent of the school, as opposed to a national average of 10 percent. But state regulations grant her charter school less money for dealing with such students than would be offered to a mainstream public school.

Remaining in compliance with costly federal regulations for dealing with children with disabilities, she says, is almost impossible under such conditions. And yet there is no guarantee that she is safe from a lawsuit if she fails to do so.

"All schools are underfunded when it comes to special education, but we are especially burdened," O'Sullivan says. "If we really are to be faced with this level of exposure and liability, then no charter school can survive."

Overlooked at the outset

Many charter-school founders simply didn't think a lot about dealing with disabilities, says Thomas Fiore, a senior study director for Westat, a Rockville, Md.-based research and data- collection group recently hired by the US Department of Education to do a study of charter schools. Some charters may also have assumed they would not attract large numbers of special-needs students, he adds.

In fact, a major objection to charter legislation was that such schools would cream off the best students. But research shows that many charter schools have more than their share of traditionally hard-to-educate children, and yet some, depending on state regulations and the terms of their charters, garner significantly less funding. …