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
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
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. …