- - Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Opinion surveys have consistently shown strong public support for charter schools. A recent survey from Education Next, a well-known education policy journal, is no exception.

The survey found, for example, that parents favor charter schools by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1 (51% to 29%). The strongest support came from African Americans (54% for, 30% against). Hispanics weren’t far behind (47% for, 31% against).

In politics, such margins would be considered a blowout.

The fact that many parents, especially Black and Hispanic parents, support charter schools should surprise no one. After all, charter schools provide parents with tuition-free alternatives to the government-run public schools that have been failing to teach even the basics in too many districts. Meanwhile, charter schools in many of the same districts have been well-documented successes.

Parents understand this. As a result, charter school enrollment has been growing steadily, to more than 3.4 million nationwide in the 2019-2020 school year, a threefold increase from 2005-06.

Perhaps that’s why a gaggle of activist organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the two national teachers unions — the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association — have been trying to undermine charter schools. If the Supreme Court doesn’t intervene, they may succeed.

Unable to derail the charter school movement through political means, the ACLU and its allies have taken a different approach: Attacking charter schools in federal court.

The test case, known as Peltier v. Charter Day School Inc., alleges that the school’s dress code, requiring girls to wear jumpers, skirts or skorts, is unconstitutional.

The case has been in litigation for seven years. The latest round ended in mid-June, when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the dress code violates the Constitution’s “equal protection clause.”

To arrive at the questionable ruling, the 4th Circuit found that Charter Day School Inc. — which operates four charter schools in southeastern North Carolina, near Wilmington — is a de facto agent of the state, or “state actor” in legal jargon.

The school has petitioned the Supreme Court to “review and reverse” the ruling, arguing that the 4th Circuit’s opinion runs counter to several previous rulings in similar cases by three other federal appeals courts and by the Supreme Court itself.

It also runs counter to a December 2021 ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court, in a case known as State of North Carolina v. Kinston Charter Academy, that “North Carolina charter schools are not state agencies.” And it ignores the clear language of the 1996 state law authorizing charter schools, which requires that private nonprofit organization’s run the state’s charter schools and explicitly exempts them from most of the rules and regulations that apply to government-run schools.

There’s a lot at stake here. As a legal affairs website has noted, large percentages of public elementary schools, middle schools and high schools adhere to “strict dress codes.” Charter Day School Inc. is no outlier.

The purpose of the lawsuit challenging the Charter Day School dress code, therefore, should be seen for what it is: a way to undermine schools that challenge the monopoly power of government-run schools.

Although the ACLU claims to be representing three girls who “hate wearing skirts,” as one of the girls complained in an article, its real constituency is the broken education establishment, which wants to cripple the competition.

Truth be told, if the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t review and reverse the 4th Circuit’s decision, Act II will be a slew of new rules and regulations that will remake charter schools in the image of dysfunctional district schools.

In short, this is not about a dress code. It’s about preserving the freedom of parents to choose the schools their children attend and the freedom of schools, such as Charter Day School Inc., to design rules and curricula of their own choosing and offer these schools to all. 

No one is required to attend Charter Day School if they don’t want to. Many other choices exist with many other, or no, dress codes.

• Jessica Lopez, a former teacher and charter school parent, is dean of classical humanities for The Roger Bacon Academy, which manages Charter Day School and its three sister schools, now known as the Classical Charter Schools of America.

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