ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We're going to focus on education now, specifically on charter schools. They're multiplying quickly across the country, except in affluent, high-performing suburban school systems.
As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, many suburban parents are frustrated by what they consider arbitrary policies to keep charter schools out and they're fighting back.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Ashley Del Sole loves living in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington D.C., in part because of its highly-regarded public schools. Her oldest daughter is about to start school, but she can't go to her neighbor school because it's overcrowded.
Ms. ASHLEY DEL SOLE: My daughter is actually slated to go to a middle school next year for kindergarten because of the overcapacity problem.
SANCHEZ: 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, open year-round, and offer a top-notch foreign language program. Del Sole says the school would be close by and free to experiment in ways that regular schools cannot.
Ms. DEL SOLE: 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.
SANCHEZ: 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.
Mr. JERRY WEAST (Schools Superintendent): Choice is something that is in abundant supply in Montgomery County.
SANCHEZ: Joe Hawkins, who put the Global Garden proposal together, says none of the so-called deficiencies the school board cited were insurmountable. Hawkins, a former researcher with the county schools, says something else stood in the way.
Mr. JOE HAWKINS: You know, in all honesty, I think that there is 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. So if we open a charter school, it means that people will perceive that our school systems are not as good as they were.
SANCHEZ: Montgomery County has rejected all three charter applications that have come before the school board. Unlike struggling inner-city schools systems where parents are desperate for better options, Hawkins says wealthy suburban school systems like Montgomery County have blocked charters.
They have a vested interest in perpetuating the notion that their schools are so terrific parents don't need more options. That is a myth, says Jeannie Allen.
Ms. JEANNIE ALLEN (Center for Education Reform): Our best school systems are resting on their laurels, and frankly, there are a lot of parents who recognize when education is not great.
SANCHEZ: Allen heads the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter-school organization.
Ms. ALLEN: People need options. They need lots of innovations, and they need the ability to say this isn't cutting it for my child.
SANCHEZ: 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 why only a fifth of the nation's 5,300 charter schools are in suburbs.
Consider the case of Princeton, N.J., where parents have also been fighting to open a charter school.
Mr. PARKER BLOCK: And it's been pretty nasty.
SANCHEZ: Parker Block is an executive with an e-commerce retail company. He and a group of parents were approved by the state to open a charter school that teaches Mandarin Chinese. New Jersey, though, requires that charters have the support of local school officials.
Mr. BLOCK: They opposed our charter and still do. They dismissed it as something that was unnecessary. It was a luxury not a necessity.
SANCHEZ: I asked Block: Isn't that a valid point? Aren't parents in wealthy suburbs pushing charter schools to create their own, private boutique schools?
Mr. BLOCK: Well, I would say that those of us who are in this endeavor to open charter schools can afford to send our children to private schools.
SANCHEZ: But unlike a private school, says Block, a public charter school can benefit the entire school system.
Mr. BLOCK: 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.
SANCHEZ: 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 reevaluate its decision to reject the Global Garden application.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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