Thursday, February 9, 2006

I know many of you are more interested in what’s going on in the Mideast, and that for you matters of the Mideast are always issues of life and death. That’s what happens when waging a religious war. But I want to turn your attention to a war being waged closer to home.

Capitol Hill is waging a legal battle against charter schools. And I don’t mean Congress, mind you, but Capitol Hill the neighborhood, where residents are trying to block 3- and 4-year-olds from attending a public charter school — and are seemingly willing to take on Congress to do it.

These residents, who collectively call themselves the Northeast Neighbors for Responsible Growth, have read more than a few pages of Democrat George Wallace’s textbook on public schooling.

These neighbors have filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court that asks the court to block the city government from giving the Apple Tree Institute for Educational Innovation the necessary permits to renovate and operate a new charter school for preschoolers. These irresponsible neighbors claim, among other things, that the preschool would have a “devastating effect on the residential and historical character of the neighborhood.” Their suit also says that noise, traffic and parking will pose “irreparable” harm to Capitol Hill residents.

Now, I am no fan of preschool programs, whether they are called Head Start or Apple Tree. My heart of hearts tells me that young children should be in nurturing environs, not thrown to the whims of one-size-fits-all programs that mass produce kindergarteners.

I am, however, a cheerleader for school choice and the rule of law, and these Capitol Hill elitists have really gotten under my skin. And so have their allies in City Hall. But I’ll calm down and back up so you can get a clear picture of what’s at stake.

It’s been 15 years since Minnesota passed the nation’s first public charter-school law, opening the doors for states around the country to offer meaningful school-choice options for parents whose children were trapped in underachieving and violent public schools. Many states followed Minnesota voluntarily. The District of Columbia, whose elected and appointed politicians have moved in lockstep with unions since the 1970s, had to be dragged along.

Congress wrote the D.C. School Reform Act in 1995, and it took effect in 1996 after being signed by Bill Clinton. The law, like many of those in the various states, exempts public charter schools from statutes, policies, rules and regulations established for the D.C. Board of Education, and even the D.C. Council and the mayor, so as keep political meddlers, including anti-school-choicers, out of the way. Because of Congress’ explicit language, the D.C. school-choice movement gained broad support. There were only 300 children in two D.C. charter schools in 1996; today there are estimated 18,000 in 51 schools.

The District isn’t the only jurisdiction with surging charter-enrollment numbers. Michigan, which passed its charter law in 1993, expects enrollment to surpass the 100,000 mark next school year, and Detroit’s public school system has lost an estimated 10,000 students since last school year, while charter enrollment hit 22.5 percent. New Jersey, like the District, has 51 charters, with an enrollment of 15,000. The demand is so high that education officials recently announced the approval of six new charter schools. (To find your state, visit

Of course, there always are rejectionists standing at the ready. In the case of Capitol Hill, they want the mayor, or at least his charges in the Office of Planning, to rewrite zoning laws that would effectively prohibit Apple Tree from opening its preschool on its own property. The anti-choicers say theirs is a prima facie case, even without the rewrite, because zoning laws define a public school as a building under the aegis of the Board of Education, which most charter schools — thanks to congressional oversight — are not.

So, to recap. A group of taxpayers wants to block the doors of a legitimate — and much in demand — public school. The taxpayers file a lawsuit.

A legal threat to public charter schools in the nation’s capital is a threat to charter schools everywhere.

Who are these Capitol Hill residents trying to keep out? Apple Tree? The children who would attend Apple Tree? The parents whose children would attend Apple Tree?

The answers really and truly do matter. Can you imagine the effects on the school-choice movement if the judge sides with the residents of Capitol Hill and against the lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who support the movement. Do you know the difference?

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