Justice Dept. Accused Of Obstructing Charter Schools

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Charges that the Department of Justice has effectively stymied the growth of charter schools through its subjective enforcement of federal desegregation orders came to the fore last week during an oversight hearing by a House judiciary subcommittee.

The Oct. 14 hearing focused on Louisiana, where state officials and charter proponents say the department's civil rights division has obstructed charter schools in part by subjecting them to lengthy and costly bureaucratic and legal procedures.

They also accuse the agency of failing to make clear its standards for evaluating whether a charter school will hinder a district's ability to abide by the terms of its desegregation plan.

Almost two-thirds of Louisiana's 66 school districts are operating under a desegregation order or consent agreement, state officials said. As a result, Justice Department and federal court approval "becomes almost a de facto requirement for anyone trying to start a charter school anywhere in the state," said Andy Kopplin, a policy director for Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican.

Critics of the federal agency added that the issue reaches beyond Louisiana. The civil rights division is a party to pending desegregation cases in nearly 500 districts in 21 states.

"The rules set in Louisiana could impact charter schools in as many as 19 states" with charter school laws and school districts subject to ongoing desegregation decrees, said Clint Bolick, the litigation director for the Washington-based Institute for Justice.

Mr. Bolick testified before the Subcommittee on the Constitution last week on behalf of an East Baton Rouge Parish charter school that gained district approval in 1998 but has never opened in the wake of the federal government's questions about its effect on the district's desegregation efforts.

The school would likely serve an overwhelmingly black enrollment in a district that Justice Department officials said has not lived up to its desegregation plan.

Forcing 'Into a Mold'

Anita Hodgkiss, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's civil rights division, rejected the charge that federal officials are blocking charter schools from taking root.

"It is necessary and possible to develop charter schools that are consistent with this nation's civil rights laws, including any outstanding court orders that may govern a school district's operations," she said.

How that works in practice, however, is determined on a case-by-case basis since every charter school, state charter school law, and district desegregation order is different, she said. She added that the civil rights division is working with the Education Department to guide states on charter schools and desegregation.

Ms. Hodgkiss testified that the division knows of some 50 charter schools operating in 30 districts in nine states where the division is party to a pending case. "In most cases, charter schools do not have serious implications for desegregation decrees," she said.

Ms. Hodgkiss said her agency must review any modification to a district's student-assignment plan. That, she said, includes the establishment of any new school--charter school or not--to see if it will impede achievement of the desegregation order.

But Louisiana officials and others said using the same bureaucratic processes with the largely independent charter schools as with traditional public schools is part of the problem.

Parents choose to send their children to charter schools, they added; students are not assigned to them.

"You're trying to force charter schools into a mold, and I don't think that makes sense," the subcommittee chairman, Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., told Ms. Hodgkiss.

Mr. Canady criticized the Justice Department for "blindly enforcing" desegregation orders and failing to see charter schools as a way to overcome the effects of past segregation by providing better educational opportunities.

Lawsuit Likely

Much of the hearing concerned the dispute over United Charter School, which the 56,000-student East Baton Rouge Parish approved last year.

The parish had to go to federal court in Baton Rouge for permission to open the school because the Justice Department said the district's desegregation plan required it.

Although the school board has filed a motion of support for the school, the court has not yet approved the school. And the court granted the Justice Department's request to block the charter school's founders from intervening.

Mr. Bolick said he plans to file a lawsuit next month to reverse the court's action in an effort to open the school.

Debates over the racial makeup of charter schools have surfaced in recent years in states such as North Carolina and South Carolina. ("Racial Makeup at Issue in S.C. Charter Debate," April 30, 1997, and "Predominantly Black Charters Focus of Debate in N.C.," Aug. 5, 1998.)

Vol. 19, Issue 8, Page 21

Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as Justice Dept. Accused Of Obstructing Charter Schools
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