Schools with a view

Are some charter schools using public funds to promote private interests?

San Diego parent Lonecia Landry has sent her daughter to Nubia Leadership Academy, a charter school, for five years. She's aware the school leases its facilities from Bayview Baptist Church, and that many of the staff and students attend services there. For Ms. Landry, the urgent need was to keep her daughter out of traditional public schools - the same schools that employ her as a teacher.

Landry says she feels comfortable about having her daughter attend Nubia Academy, even though they're not affiliated with the church. "It's not like they're putting their views on the kids," she says.

Experts worry, however, that in parents' eagerness to escape traditional public schools, some may be overlooking religious or other ideological messages seeping into their children's lessons.

Because charter schools are public, they are not allowed to promote a particular religion or belief system, although they are free from some other layers of regulation governing mainstream public schools. But critics worry that - particularly given that extra measure of freedom - a handful may indulge in what Bruce Fuller at the University of California, Berkeley, calls "stealth religion."

"It's naïve to think that if you have a charter school [sponsored by] a church or mosque, that religious ideas wouldn't filter into the psyches of students," says Andrea Grenadier, an education consultant who lives outside Washington.

Charter proponents emphatically disagree. "We are under so much scrutiny today, there is no way we would step over the church-state line," says Peter Rupert, president of National Heritage Academies in Grand Rapids, Mich., which manages 39 schools in five states. "Too much is at stake."

And for many parents, the concern that their children might be exposed to a religious viewpoint is less important than knowing they're attending a safe, well-run school. But that's exactly what worries some experts. "Parents will skate over the ethics questions because they like what the school is doing overall," says Ms. Grenadier.

Most of the 2,700 charter schools in the United States have never confronted such accusations. But a handful of charters have faced lawsuits - including one pending in northern California - that raise concerns as to who is reviewing curriculum.

Critics argue that in the rush to promote charter schools, state legislatures have not kept enough safeguards in place. This includes oversight of curriculum beyond meeting state education standards. The popularity of charters has led to laws that in some cases make it difficult for school boards to turn them down, or for unhappy parents to seek redress.

In Nevada City, Calif., for example, a lawsuit involving several Waldorf-method charter schools is scheduled for federal trial in September 2004. The suit was brought by a handful of parents calling themselves People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools (PLANS), who argue that Waldorf founder Rudolf Steiner's philosophy is a religious one that does not belong in public schools. [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly stated that the charter schools were run by Waldorf.]

Debra Snell of PLANS says she's not opposed to charter schools, and even helped start the Yuba River Charter School in Nevada City, which uses the Waldorf method. But she became disillusioned by the "stealthy manner" in which national Waldorf officials took control of the school.

Because California law immunizes charter schools from local and state oversight, Ms. Snell says, "There is no place you can go to raise problems. We made a presentation to the state, and they said, 'We have no jurisdiction.' "

Families who choose charter schools may not know what they're getting into. A quick search of online directories showed that religious affiliations were not often mentioned, or were buried in text. A savvy parent would need to parse the language used in mission statements or visit the school itself.

But nonreligious ideologies can also be a point of concern.

In Sacramento, Calif., the recent approval of a Humane Learning charter school caught parent Ann Silberman off guard. While the idea of teaching compassion toward all creatures appealed to her, the proposed curriculum was vague. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the location of the charter school.]

In researching similar programs, she noticed phrases associated with radical animal-rights groups. Ms. Silberman is now campaigning to halt the school out of concern the curriculum will be hijacked.

She brought her concerns to the school board, but "they weren't listening."

Parents with blinders on

Diana Halpenny, general counsel for the San Juan district, points out that most state laws - including California's - discourage interference in charter affairs. "The only recourse for an unhappy parent is to change the situation from within, or pull their child out," she says. "Legally, it's not really the district's business."

But parents often appreciate an emphasis on character development and ethical behavior, two areas where traditional public schools fear to tread. They also perceive charter schools as having more rigorous academic standards. Those who can't afford a private religious education flock to charter schools.

Professor Fuller sees it as part of a growing sense among parents that their religiously affiliated program is just as entitled to public funds as the next. "[As a nation] we may be worried about church-state issues, but there's an unspoken conspiracy of 'I'll let you use public funds for your school if you let me use them for mine,' " he says.

Watchdog groups concerned with church-state separation are looking askance at situations such as the one in Minneapolis, in which the principal of a Catholic private school plans to open her own charter school.

Ascension Academy was approved to open next year, despite questions raised by two state education officials concerned about religious undertones. Dorwatha Woods will remain principal when she becomes director of the charter.

Political footballs

A charter school can also become a political football, as Kamal al-Khatib learned earlier this month in Palmdale, Calif. He says he was defeated for a seat on the Antelope Valley school board because a local group accused him of running a charter school that teaches "Islamic values."

While the Guidance Charter School was formerly located in a mosque, Mr. Khatib says the curriculum is completely secular. The 152 students come from a variety of backgrounds, although he declined to say how many were Muslim.

In South Pinellas, Fla., a group of Hare Krishna devotees chartered a school in 1999. Then-school board member Judy Brashear voted twice against granting the charter, saying the Krishnas would essentially run a private school on public money. She was overruled.

When contacted for this story, Ms. Brashear said she did not want to talk about that time. She was not reelected to the board in 2000. Today, the school sits on land adjacent to a farm owned by the Hare Krishna community.

Charter closures

Between 6 and 10 percent of all charter schools that ever opened have shut down. Of those, most were closed for financial mismanagement, with a small number of those for outright fraud. No one interviewed for this article could pinpoint a charter school that was shut down because it violated the first amendment clause against promoting religion.

While states have taken steps to increase financial accountability of charters, watching the curriculum is left largely to parents.

Given the confusing array of state laws, it's difficult to say where the buck stops. States need clearer standards for charters and authorizers, say some critics.

Charter supporters largely agree that the authorizer's role needs clarifying. But most insist that religious issues will not seriously harm the charter movement.

"Having an agenda alone doesn't put a charter in violation of the church-state laws," says Ms. Halpenny. "You have to ask, 'Is a religion being taught?' "

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