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Charter-School Opponents Taking Cases to Court

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Opponents of charter schools are turning to the courts to fight an increasingly popular reform idea.

In the inaugural skirmishes, two challenges to charter-school laws were rejected recently in Colorado and Michigan, although one is likely to be revived.

In the Colorado case, a federal judge dismissed claims made by a group of Hispanic parents in Pueblo who charged that the local school board's decision to close two public schools while approving a charter school was biased against Hispanic students.

They also challenged the constitutionality of the state charter-school law, which gives school boards the power to grant autonomy to groups of citizens seeking to run publicly funded schools.

Meanwhile, a state judge in Michigan last month threw out a suit challenging an unusual charter granted to an academy for home-schooling families.

But the judge dismissed the suit on a technicality, ruling that the plaintiffs did not have the proper legal standing to challenge the charter of the Noah Webster Academy. Charter opponents last week were reworking their suit and planned to refile it.

Charter schools are coming under legal attack even as morestates enact laws authorizing them. The idea has often drawn bipartisan support from state lawmakers as a milder alternative to private school vouchers. But critics say charter schools lack accountability and create a two-tiered system of public education.

"The law allows for the circumvention of the [state] constitutional separation of public and private schools," said Barbara Roberts Mason, a member of the Michigan state board of education and an employee of the Michigan Education Association, which strongly opposes the charter-school law.

She was a plaintiff in the Michigan case, along with two other state board members, a Lansing school board member, and the Michigan Council About Parochiad, a group that advocates a strict separation between church and state.

Illegal Kickbacks?

The Noah Webster Academy was granted a charter by the school board of Berlin and Orange townships in Ionia County, Mich., but it has enrolled more than 1,400 home-school students across the state since it opened on Sept. 1, said David A. Kallman, a Lansing lawyer who helped establish it.

The school has provided books and curriculum materials to enrolled students and will eventually provide computers, modems, and software for an online educational system. (See Education Week, May 11, 1994.)

The academy will receive about $5,500 in state aid for each pupil, and its contract with the chartering school board promises to return the greater of 1 percent or $50 per student to the district. In their lawsuit, charter opponents call the arrangement an illegal kickback.

The suit also argues that the charter arrangement violates the state charter-school law because the academy accepts students outside the Berlin and Orange school district. The suit further argues that the charter law itself violates the state constitution, which has a provision against private schools receiving public funds.

"A wolf in sheep's clothing is still a wolf," Ms. Roberts said. "These are still private home schools."

Mr. Kallman said the academy's supporters had expected "since day one there would be a lawsuit."

"The opponents know they've got to try to stop it here and now," he added.

Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette dismissed the plaintiffs' suit on Aug. 25 on technical grounds. But he indicated that he had questions about whether the academy should qualify for state funding.

Colorado Class Action

The Colorado suit was sparked when the Pueblo school board cited declining enrollment in closing two elementary schools in Hispanic neighborhoods. The board had earlier approved a charter for the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences, and transferred some supplies from the closed schools to the charter-school site.

A class action by a group of Hispanic residents contended that the two actions were related and that the board was favoring the charter school at the expense of two neighborhood public schools.

"The charter school represents the elite of the city," said Joseph E. Losavio Jr., the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The suit also charged that the state's charter-school law establishes an unconstitutional "dual system" of education that allows disparities in spending and quality between charter schools and regular public schools. The suit contended that the law and the board's actions violated the guarantee of equal protection of the law provided in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Sherman G. Finesilver rejected the plaintiffs' arguments, ruling that evidence did not show a link between the decision to close the elementary schools and the grant of the charter.

He also said in his Aug. 24 opinion that the state "has a legitimate governmental interest in encouraging innovation in education. The Charter Schools Act is rationally related to such an interest."

However, the judge agreed that the charter schools' admissions policies might dissuade poor families from applying. For example, application forms asked where parents were employed, which might discourage unemployed parents from applying, the judge said. He recommended that the school alter its admissions procedures.

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