- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

A local group called Northeast Neighbors for Responsible Growth filed a lawsuit Feb. 2 in D.C. Superior Court seeking to block the opening of a charter school on Capitol Hill. It claims that noise and traffic generated by the attendance of 50 or so preschoolers would cause “irreparable” harm to both the residents of Capitol Hill and the historical character of the neighborhood. But the residents also claim something else that is very sinister: that charter schools are not public schools. They cite decades-old zoning laws as evidence. The residents want the operators of the charter school, Apple Tree Institute for Educational Innovation, to apply to the D.C. Board of Zoning Appeals for a special exemption. Apple Tree and school-choice prononents must stand firm during this legal challenge.

Those who support charter schools might, at first blush, see legal standing on behalf of the residents. We did find a definition among D.C. zoning regulations that said a public school “is a building operated and maintained by the Board of Education.” But that section of law also said that the “term [public school] also shall include a community-centered school campus.”

It’s worth noting as well that in the District there are two entities that oversee charter schools: 1) the Board of Education and 2) the D.C. Public Charter School Board. As it happens, the latter was established a decade ago through federal legislation because the city’s leadership had consistently rejected the option of charter schools. Apple Tree’s charter was granted by the independent charter-school board and not the Board of Education. By every measure, a charter school established by either entity is a public school.

Moreover, there is the matter of the very law that established public charter schools in the District in the first place. The D.C. School Reform Act is intentionally explicit about charter schools, stating, in part, that the city’s public charter schools “shall be exempt from District of Columbia statutes, policies, rules, and regulations established for the District of Columbia public schools by the Superintendent, Board of Education, Mayor, District of Columbia Council” and even the control board, which was a creation of Congress itself.

The fact of the matter is that the lawsuit filed by these Capitol Hill residents poses a potential threat to charter schools throughout the country. And what the residents are asking of Apple Tree outside of the lawsuit — to seek an exemption from the zoning board — would set a bad precedent.

In the District as elsewhere, parents and other advocates of school choice fought the long good fight to establish public charter schools as academic alternatives to large, violent and underachieving urban schools. In some states, parents are still battling the status quo. All Apple Tree wants to do is open a preschool for 50 or so children. The notion that doing that in a residential neighborhood would cause “irreparable” harm simply does not have sturdy legal legs. Neighborhoods and schools — especially schools for preschoolers and grade schoolers — have always been perfect partners. That’s precisely why they are called neighborhood schools.

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