IJ Prepared To Remove DOJ From Charter Schoolhouse Doors

May 23, 2008

November 2000


IJ Prepared To Remove DOJ From Charter Schoolhouse Doors

By Matthew Berry

“Sue now or forever hold your peace.”

With that provocative challenge, the Institute for Justice laid down the gauntlet, announcing that a new, mostly black charter school will open in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, next fall unless the U.S. Justice Department invokes a decades-old desegregation decree to try to stop it.

IJ’s involvement in East Baton Rouge Parish lies at the intersection of two important education trends. The first is the growth of the charter school movement. Charter schools are innovative public schools of choice run independently from local school districts and are often sponsored by teachers or community groups. At the beginning of the 1990s, no charter schools existed in the United States; last year, there were almost 1,500 operating in 36 states.

The second trend is that courts are beginning to exit the business of running schools pursuant to decades-old desegregation decrees. These decrees have long outlived their usefulness—requiring racial balance even where school districts are nearly all minority, and even when such requirements conflict with quality education. Prompted by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions admonishing courts to relinquish control of school districts once the original goals of desegregation orders have been met, schools from Cleveland to Charlotte have recently been released from rigid desegregation decrees that typically cover nearly every aspect of public school governance and stifle innovation.

Unfortunately, however, only one of these trends has so far reached East Baton Rouge Parish. When community leaders wanted to start a charter school last year to serve 650 K-12 students in a low-income, heavily minority neighborhood, they were unable to obtain the approval of a federal court still running the school system 45 years after the initial desegregation lawsuit was filed. In fact, because of the U.S. Department of Justice’s objections, they were even denied their day in court to ask the judge to sign off on the new school.

This year, however, these community leaders, with the help of the Institute for Justice, are taking a different approach. Armed with a new charter issued by the State of Louisiana, they announced on September 28 plans for the United Charter School to open at the beginning of the next school year. IJ has agreed to represent the school should the U.S. Department of Justice go to court in a bid to block the school from opening. Because the state government is not a defendant in the East Baton Rouge desegregation case, we do not believe that the federal court running the school system has any jurisdiction to block the establishment of state-approved charter schools.

Perversely, the Justice Department has acted to block charter schools in three states, even though the schools mainly serve minority populations.

If the Department of Justice sues United Charter School, the case could affect charter schools in at least 16 states—including more than 450 school districts—that have continuing desegregation decrees as well as choice programs including private schools.

The dispute, moreover, will be between two distinct visions of the true meaning of Brown v. Board of Education. On the one hand, the Department of Justice will focus narrowly on the issue of racial balancing. It has demanded that the school adopt racial quotas for admissions, and the school has refused. IJ, on the other hand, will point out that the real objective of Brown is the provision of equal educational opportunities and argue that court decrees intended to vindicate this guarantee should not be used to deprive minority schoolchildren of high-quality educational alternatives.

The need for educational options among low-income minority families in East Baton Rouge is real. Several decades of court orders have failed to substantially raise student achievement in the parish’s public schools. As a result, parents who could afford better alternatives for their kids have exited the system while less affluent families have been left behind. Currently, for instance, even though a majority of the Parish’s residents are white, about 65 percent of its public school students are black.

Nearly 100 parents turned up at a recent information meeting for the new United Charter School, seeking desperately needed educational options for their children. They understand it may take a legal battle to secure those options.

“Our goal is to open this school next fall,” declared Clint Bolick. “But if the Justice Department wants a fight, we are ready to fight.”

Matthew Berry is an Institute for Justice staff attorney.

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