Charter schools may be multiplying fast across the country, but they're stalled in affluent, high-performing suburban school systems. Of the 5,300 charter schools in the U.S., only one-fifth are in suburbs.
Suburban parents are frustrated by what they see as arbitrary policies to keep charter schools from spreading and are fighting back.
That's the case with some parents in Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington, D.C., where Ashley Del Sole lives. Her oldest daughter is about to start school, but she can't go to her neighborhood school because it's overcrowded.
"My daughter is actually slated to go to a middle school next year for kindergarten because of the overcapacity problem," Del Sole says.
So a year ago, Del Sole and other parents submitted an application to open a privately run charter school funded with public dollars. Global Garden Charter School would be small, with no more than 420 students, grades K-8. It would have an extended school day, be open year-round and offer a top-notch foreign language program. She says the school would be close by and free to experiment in ways that regular schools cannot.
"By its very nature, a charter school is autonomous, and therefore we would have the opportunity to do things differently, think outside the box that has been drawn by Montgomery County Public Schools," she says.
When the proposal came before the Montgomery County Board of Education, board members unanimously rejected it, citing "deficiencies" in Global Garden's academic design.
Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast said that Global Garden simply didn't offer anything kids didn't already have access to.
"Choice is something that's in abundant supply in Montgomery County," Weast says.
Joe Hawkins, who put the Global Garden proposal together, says none of the so-called deficiencies the school board cited were insurmountable. A former researcher with the county schools, Hawkins says something else stood in the way.
"You know in all honesty, I think there's a serious mindset that has come to the conclusion that charter schools mean something bad is happening if one is open. That's what they do in the ghetto. That's what they do in failing urban school districts," Hawkins says. "So if we open a charter school it means that people will perceive that our schools are not as good as they were."
'People Need Options'
Montgomery County has rejected all three charter applications that have come before the school board. Unlike struggling inner-city school systems where parents are desperate for better options, Hawkins says wealthy suburban school systems like Montgomery County have blocked charters.
He says the county has a vested interest in perpetuating the notion that its schools are so terrific that parents don't need more options. But they do, says Jeannie Allen of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter-school organization.
"Our best school systems are resting on their laurels, and frankly, there are a lot of parents who recognize when education is not great," Allen says. "People need options. They need lots of innovations and they need the ability to say 'This isn't cutting it for my child.' "
In Maryland, unlike most states, local school boards are the only ones authorized to issue a charter — and that puts them in direct competition with charter schools that they're obligated to fund but don't control. It's another reason there aren't many charter schools in the suburbs.
Consider the case of Princeton, N.J., where parents have also been fighting to open a charter school.
A group of parents was approved by the state to open a charter school that teaches Mandarin Chinese.
"It's been pretty nasty," says Parker Block, one of the parents.
New Jersey, though, requires that charters have the support of local school officials.
"They opposed our charter and still do. They dismissed it as something that was unnecessary, that it was a luxury not a necessity," says Block, an executive at an e-commerce company.
But if wealthy suburbs push charters, could the result be their own private boutique schools?
"Well, I would say that those of us in this endeavor to open charter schools can afford to send our children to private schools," Block says.
But unlike a private school, says Block, a public charter school can benefit the entire school system.
"And that's kind of getting lost. Charter schools were never intended to replace regular public schools. They were supposed to be laboratories of innovation," Block says.
As for Global Garden Charter School, it may still have a shot. The Maryland State Board of Education has ordered Montgomery County's school board to re-evaluate its decision to reject the Global Garden application.