WINTER HAVEN, Fla. – Deric Feacher had a very worthwhile dream.
He wanted to establish a charter school in his hometown that specialized in helping disadvantaged and at-risk students earn their high school diplomas.
So he did what Florida law required. He took his proposal for the new charter school to the Polk County School Board’s Charter Review Committee, two different times. And twice he came away without permission to open his school, according to the Sunshine State News.
What was the committee’s hang-up? Were members afraid that Feacher would establish a bad school? Do they have a problem with the idea of creating a special school for children who are struggling in traditional schools?
It was nothing like that. The board members were just worried about losing money.
Every student that transfers from a traditional public school to a charter school takes with them thousands of dollars of per-pupil state aid. And many school boards and teachers unions are very hesitant to give up any state money, even if changing schools is in some students’ best interest.
Luckily, Feacher appealed to the full Polk County school board and received permission to open New Beginnings High School last fall. But the hoops he had to jump through left a lot of reasonable people shaking their heads.
“To say that only school districts may issue charters is as anti-competitive as saying Publix can’t open a new store in a particular county unless the local Winn Dixie or Wal Mart gives its permission,” commented Bob Sanchez, director of public policy for the James Madison Institute.
School boards, unions hate competition
From one angle, it appears as though charter schools are thriving across the nation. They are legal in 41 states and the District of Columbia. There are roughly 5,600 charter schools serving two million students.
But many more charters are waiting to open, and that’s frequently a difficult process, even in areas where the public demands more school choice.
The problem is that many states require proposed charter schools to gain the permission of the school board in the district where they want to locate. Not surprisingly, many school boards, urged on by teachers unions, often do everything possible to squash competition.
Ninety percent of all charter school authorizers in the U.S. are public schools, yet they only approve and oversee about 48 percent of charter schools, according to a report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. The other 10 percent of authorizers – universities, special state governing boards, etc. – approve and oversee the other 52 percent.
That suggests a definite hesitation on the part of school board members to approve charter applications.
In short, school boards don’t want to share their resources with charter schools, even if families in the community demand more options. Teachers unions tend to oppose charter schools because they generally hire non-union staffs who do not pay union dues.
For many in the educational establishment, happiness means no competition and no accountability.
This dilemma goes back years. Here are just a few examples, courtesy of a 2007 article published by Joe Williams, president of Democrats for Education Reform:
The organizers of a proposed charter school in Albany, New York hoped to obtain a zoning variance to occupy a particular building. Local school and union officials protested, and the city council and zoning board of appeals denied the request, claiming the building was on a site inappropriate for a school.
Here’s the zinger – the same building had been home to Albany’s Public School #3 for 70 years. The New York Supreme Court eventually stepped in and allowed the school to open.
The problem has not gone away in more recent years.
In Brooklyn, the Success Academy charter network has been fighting for permission to use space in a building that has room for 700 student desks. Success Academy already operates nine charter schools in various locations that have made great strides with traditionally underprivileged students, according to the New York Post.
But the United Federation of Teachers has been putting up a fight, claiming the new charter school would disrupt existing school programs in the building. A recent informational session for parents who might be interested in the charter school had to be cancelled due to insults and catcalls shouted at Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz.
“There are some (charter applications) that never get off the ground,” said Todd Ziebarth, vice president of state advocacy and support for theNational Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “And some applications should get bounced. But there are some jurisdictions where local school districts take more of an ideological view. They are not looking at applications, but their own personal dislike for charter schools.”
A handful of states have no appellate procedure when a charter school is turned down by a local school board, Ziebarth said. One good example is Virginia, which has only four charter schools in the state, he said.
“If you just leave it up to local school boards, you’re not going to end up with many charter schools,” Ziebarth said.
Appeal mechanisms on the rise
Not all the news regarding charter school authorization is bad.
A majority of states now have some form of meaningful appeal process for charter schools that are shot down by local school boards, according to Ziebarth. Some states allow colleges or universities to approve and oversee charter schools, while others are creating statewide agencies that have the power to approve a charter application in any school district.
One good example is Illinois. While there are 109 charter schools in and around Chicago, there are only 14 in downstate areas, according to a report from WBEZ radio. That’s because Chicago Public Schools officials want to give students an escape route from failing neighborhood schools, while many downstate school boards are hostile to the idea of sharing resources, the radio report said.
Under the old system, if a local school board rejects a charter application, the only appeal was to the state board of education, which displayed little inclination to overturn school board decisions, Ziebarth said. While there have been dozens of appeals, the state board only reversed school board decisions and authorized charter schools three times.
But now a new entity, the Illinois State Charter Commission, has the power to approve the establishment of charter schools that have been rejected by local school boards. The commission will also have oversight powers over those schools.
But the new board has its critics, including Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery, who was quoted as saying “I don’t think the people of Illinois would stand for the gaming industry, say, to have the right to reverse a community’s decision not to allow a race track in its town. I don’t know why we wouldn’t give at least the same protections to the children of Illinois.”
As if children need protection from charter schools. On the contrary, charter schools were created because many children desperately need protection from failing neighborhood union schools.
A similar new law in Florida allows “high performing charter school systems” to replicate their programs in various communities without the interference of local schools boards. Florida now has more than 500 charter schools, Ziebarth said.
But the war is clearly not over. In California, where there are 900 charters serving about 2 million children, the powerful California Teachers Association is sponsoring a bill that would give local school districts and other authorizers more power to deny charter applications based on finances.
The bill says “a chartering authority may deny a charter petition if it makes a written factual finding that the charter school would have a negative fiscal impact on the school district,” according to the Orange County Register.
As Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network put it, “This law seems like an attempt to make it more difficult for charters to come into existence. Some oversight is good, of course, but this seems to be excessive.”