A Chartered Fight

 A Chartered Fight

WASHINGTON — Parents in one Baton Rouge, La., neighborhood were relieved when they first learned of the opening of a charter school. But they became disheartened to learn that the school, which would be 80 percent Black, could run afoul of a court order for racially balanced schools.
“As I see it, the children should go where their parents want them to go,” says Greta Ridley, a 65-year-old retiree who is raising her grandson.
The 10-year-old had repeated fourth grade at a school Ridley didn’t like. She felt lucky to get him into another charter school this year. But many more families are waiting, since Justice Department opposition postponed the opening of The United Charter School, scheduled to move into a vacant inner city mall this year in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
Nationwide, decades-old desegregation decrees ¾ meant to help families like Ridley’s gain equal access to a quality education ¾ are being targeted by poor, minority parents who see charter schools, vouchers and other education experiments as their best hope. They and other charter school advocates, tired of waiting for the progress promised by desegregation, are joining in lawsuits to end court-ordered actions pending in 20 states.
The Justice Department has blocked just three of the nation’s 1,700 charter schools, officials told Congress last month.
A charter school, created by a group of teachers, community members or parents, is free of most state laws and regulations. A charter outlines its goals and procedures.
Unlike the blocked schools in Lufkin, Texas; Oktibbeha County, Miss.; and Georgetown County, S.C., most charters are usually too small to disturb segregation patterns, Anita Hodgkiss, a deputy assistant attorney general (WHERE?), told the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on constitutional issues. And desegregation orders nationwide could only affect about 50 more charters, she said.
However, parents have the impression the department “plans to do everything in its power to prevent the opening of certain charter schools,” said Andy Kopplin, education policy adviser to Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster.
In the Baton Rouge case, Hodgkiss says, the 650-student United Charter School could have in effect added another “one-race” school to a system without financial resources to desegregate 50 of its 97 schools. So the Justice Department declined to help the school get court approval to open despite desegregation orders. The school’s fate depends on whether local board officials decide it’s worth the time and money to go to court on its behalf.
Parents are willing to do just that, says Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, a pro-school choice Washington law advocacy group. Bolick says the group plans to file suit next month, representing families in Baton Rouge and elsewhere who want to challenge desegregation orders to protect their charter schools.
“The formation of an all-Black school should not thwart the creation of these schools if the school is affirmatively chosen by parents,” he says.
But charters are not a panacea for low-income minority families, civil rights advocates say.
“These schools must not be allowed to operate without consideration to the damage [they] may cause to the fragile desegregation implementation in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system,” says Victor Kirk, city businessman who once worked for the district.
Kirk, who also directed the Baton Rouge-branch of the civil rights watchdog Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, adds, “Charters must not be insulated from failure nor particularly removed from public scrutiny.”    
— The Associated Press



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