Academic journal article Education Next

Games Charter Opponents Play: How Local School Boards-And Their Allies-Block the Competition

Academic journal article Education Next

Games Charter Opponents Play: How Local School Boards-And Their Allies-Block the Competition

Article excerpt

Considerable attention has been paid to the most blatant barriers that public charter schools face. By lobbying against good charter legislation and fair funding (see Figure 1), financing anti-charter studies and propaganda, filing lawsuits, and engaging the public battle of ideas, teacher unions and other charter opponents openly wage what might be called an "air war" against charters.

But there is also evidence of a perhaps more damaging "ground war." Interviews with more than 400 charter school operators from coast to coast have revealed widespread localized combat--what one administrator called "bureaucratic sand" that is often hurled in the faces of charter schools. Indeed, as a 2005 editorial in the Washington Post described charter school obstruction in Maryland, "It's guerilla turf war, with children caught in the middle. Attempts to establish public charter schools in Maryland have been thwarted at almost every turn by entrenched school boards, teachers unions and principals resistant to any competition."

The goal appears to be to stop charter schools any way possible. A decade after Massachusetts passed its charter school law as part of the Education Reform Act of 1993, city officials in North Adams, Massachusetts, sued the state Department of Education, challenging the constitutionality of charter schools. Citing a 150-year-old clause in the state constitution, the city claimed all public school money had to go to schools that are controlled by "public agents." The suit was later dismissed but shows the lengths to which local interests will go to stop the schools or at least slow them down.

Today, more than 1 million students are enrolled in public charter schools in the 41 states (and the District of Columbia) that have charter laws, with almost 4,000 charter schools in all. Most, if not all, of these schools have encountered some form of bureaucratic resistance at the local level. That resistance may take place at the school's inception, when it first looks to purchase a building and comply with municipal zoning laws. It may come when opponents play games with a school's transportation or funding, or when legal barriers are tossed in the way, or when false information about charter schools is widely disseminated. Despite the obstacles, many charter schools are thriving. It's worth taking a look at the forces on the ground that would have it otherwise and the myriad ways they attempt to stymie the charter school movement.

No-School Zone

Often the most painstaking and difficult parts of launching a charter school are locating, purchasing, and maintaining the school building. Many charter opponents believe that if they can sufficiently complicate this nascent stage of a charter school's life, they will have dealt a major blow to its future success.

In Albany, New York, opponents have used the city's zoning commission to halt charter school growth. When Albany Preparatory Charter School requested a variance on property it was eyeing, opponents appeared before a public hearing about the proposed school building and used the opportunity to argue against charter schools in general. Both the city and the board of zoning appeals denied the variance request in February 2005 on grounds that the proposed building was in a location that was not suitable for a school. It wasn't difficult for the charter school to prove that the decision was unfairly "arbitrary and capricious," however. The building that Albany had deemed unsuitable for a school had been, for more than 70 years, Albany's very own Public School 3. In December 2005, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. Spargo gave the city 60 days to approve the variance request.

That same month, the Albany school system discussed ways to prevent another school, the Green Tech Charter High School, from opening. The school board voted to have Superintendent Eva Joseph review possibilities for taking the property by eminent domain so the district could seize the land before the charter school could be built. …

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