One mold charters can't break

These public schools could be swamped by often-costly and inflexible federal regulations

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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff/file

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.

So far, says Dr. Fiore, there have been few examples of charter schools brought to the financial brink by special-needs students. "But absolutely," he says, "the potential is there for this to happen."

Some say the underlying problem is a fundamental conflict between the nature of charter schools and the federal government's mandate that all schools serve all children. Charter schools were designed, say some proponents, to serve small populations of children in an innovative fashion that might not suit everyone.

"It's unrealistic to think that a school built into a strip mall or on three stories of an old city building ... can provide for a child with a whole panoply of needs," Professor Hess says. "This desire to serve everybody is fundamentally at odds with [charter schools'] purpose for existing."

Hess says it is entirely possible that certain charter schools will prove themselves adept at meeting needs of particular students, and yet be censured by the government and the courts because they fail to meet the needs of all students.

Some policymakers are working to find answers for problems posed by the need to accommodate disabled students. States such as Minnesota and Colorado have made strides toward finding creative solutions, for instance, by pooling special-education resources to be shared between charters.

Some charter proponents say they are reasonably confident that questions about disabilities will ultimately be dealt with in a way that will not prove too burdensome for most charters. But federal regulations dealing with race are another issue.

"I'm less optimistic here," says Bryan Hassel, co-founder of Public Impact, an education-policy consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C. "That's more of a brick wall that some charters will run into, and I don't see what scope for creativity there is."

Not every charter is challenged by racial issues. In theory, what most have to demonstrate in terms of their racial mix is that their admission policies are fair and open to all.

But that's not the case for any charter school located in a district under a federal desegregation order. There are about 350 such school systems in states with charter-school laws, any of which could provide fertile ground for the kind of lawsuit now brewing in Baton Rouge.

North and South Carolina have already faced sticky questions about charters and race due to the way their state charter laws were crafted. Originally, fears that charter schools would attract all-white student bodies prompted legislators to include provisions requiring a racial mix.

Ironically, those provisions have threatened the existence of some popular North Carolina charters in black communities where there is little or no white enrollment. In both states, there has been talk of amending the charter law, but little action.

Federal rules should apply to all

When it comes to federal regulations, however, the focus is not on changing laws but on learning to live with them.

"Charters are public schools," points out Alex Medler, a policy analyst with the public charter-schools program at the US Department of Education in Washington. "And one of the non-negotiables that comes with being a public school is complying with federal law."

The federal government wants to play a role in keeping charter operators informed and bringing them together to share potential solutions, Mr. Medler says.

He notes that mainstream public schools struggle over issues of race and disability as well, and have a mixed record in dealing with them.

Reexamining these questions could benefit all schools, though it won't be easy, he says. "No one should sugarcoat how difficult these questions are. But we can't give up because this is hard."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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