- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

TheCalifornia Supreme Court recently upheld a precedent-setting ruling regarding public school facilities and charter schools. Several states and local school systems need to pay attention, since school-choice advocates have successfully forced the hands of the White House and Congress, and the majority of state legislatures.

In short, the recent ruling stemmed from an appeal filed in November by the Sequoia Union High School District, California Teachers Union and the CaliforniaSchoolBoard Association. Their appeal argued that, while they were on the losing end of a lawsuit that mandates Sequoia provide public school facilities for a charter school, the Supreme Court should “depublish” the lower court’s precedent-setting ruling. Fortunately, the state’s high court rejected their claim.

That parents are still fighting the usual suspects more than a decade after the first charter school law was established in Minnesota is noteworthy. Many school officials, teachers unions and school boards remain quite hostile to school choice. They do not want the competition. They want schools mired in their red tape. They do not want charter schools because charter schools are usually free of union control. School boards do not support choice because it gives parents, teachers and community leaders the freedom to operate outside of their political regimes.

While such legal instances as the California case offers the occasional setback to the anti-choice movement, its supporters continue to maintain the statusquo.Inthestateof Washington, teachers and others for years have tried and failed to establish charter schools. One of 10 states that has no law favoring the establishment of charter schools, Washington superintendents are as likely to turn a deaf ear as to ignore your telephone calls. “You are simply thwarted at every turn,” a Seattle parent, Robin J. Lake, recently wrote in the Seattle Times.

Charter schools and vouchers offer choice to parents and academic hope to students — especially parents in urban school districts whose children often have no choice but to attend failing neighborhood schools. In another Washington — Washington, D.C., where failing public schools are the norm — one in six public school students attends a charter school.

Charter schools — and, indeed, vouchers — are natural forward steps as parents try to shop around for schools that meet their children’s needs. After all, America’s public schools did not always adhere to the one-size-fits-all education ideology. During the pre-civil rights era, many public school systems followed the so-called track system, wherein high schools offered academic, vocational or business-oriented curriculums. Unions and racial politics dismantled that track system. Initially, parents turned to suburbia or enrolled their children in private schools. That left liberals to cry for “full funding” of public schools. When parents learned that the lack of funding wasn’t the problem, they created magnet schools and charter schools. The unions, of course, then began begging for higher salaries and more money for staff development programs. That federally funded voucher plans are even in the current mix, stirring up still more competition, is a logical next step.

Still, the battle continues and parents are thwarted at every turn. For example, the city has dozens of surplus and underutilized schools and laws, like California, that say charter schools must be granted preference regarding public school facilities. But, instead of turning schoolhouses over to charter schools, public school officials cry wolf: “We might need the space some day”; or “we might need those schools for swing space in case of emergency.”

The hostility does not end there. In one D.C. neighborhood, a political skirmish is underway involving Evans Middle School. The D.C. Public School system signed a contract that would have created a perfect partnership by allowing a traditional public school and a charter school to occupy the same schoolhouse — a first in the nation’s capital. Alas, anti-choicers are claiming that advocates for charter schools are waging a “takeover.”

That is hardly surprising, since anti-choicers and their union-loving status quo now face another threat in the form of vouchers. The federal package for the District includes $13 million for charter schools and $14 million for vouchers — despite anti-choicers’ best efforts to derail the plan.

So, desperate to hold students — especially poor students — hostage to their one-size-fails-all system of public education, the anti-choicers have now taken to disparaging even charter schools.

This sad state of the District’s educational affairs will morph into various debates — school governance, budget concerns, safety issues and old-fashioned election-year politicking — as the school year slugs along. By the time summer rolls around and the voucher plan comes closer to reality, school board members, unions and others who oppose school choice will try all manner of distractions. Legal wrangles are on the horizon, too. Parents and other proponents had better, to mock Bette Davis’ Margot Channing, hold on. This is going to be a bumpy ride to reform.

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