Constitution protects, restricts charter schools

Sunday, May 7, 2000

When the nation's first charter school opened its doors in St. Paul, Minn., seven years ago, some critics called it a passing fad doomed to fail.

Today, there are nearly 1,700 charter schools in 34 states. This month, advocates of charters nationwide are celebrating their success with the first annual National Charter School Week. Clearly, this is one school reform movement that's here to stay.

But the proliferation of charters hasn't ended the debate or confusion about them. Polls indicate that less than 50% of the American people understand what they are and how they work.

A primary point of confusion has to do with the status of charter schools under the First Amendment. A group of Muslims in Boston asked me recently if they could start a charter school centered on Islamic teachings. I've gotten similar questions from Baptists, Scientologists and Quakers.

It's easy to understand why religious groups are so drawn to the charter school idea. They've heard about people starting charters based on alternative approaches to education and free from many of the state regulations governing traditional public schools. Charters are intended to give parents more choice, some stressing a “back to basics” curriculum while others focus on everything from fine arts to African heritage. Best of all, charters are supported by government funds.

So, may a religious group start a charter school with a curriculum that reflects its religious teachings? The First Amendment answer is “no.”

Charter schools are public schools, and all public schools are governed by the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. As government schools, charters may neither inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where administrators and teachers remain neutral toward religion, while making sure to protect the religious-liberty rights of every student.

Does this mean that charter schools can't work with faith communities?

Not at all. Charter schools — and all public schools — may cooperate with religious groups in setting up mentoring projects, after-school recreation programs, homework study halls, extended day care and similar joint efforts.

Cooperation, however, doesn't mean religious groups will be allowed to use the schools for proselytizing students. Moreover, participation in cooperative programs must be open to all responsible community groups, not just to religious ones. And student participation can't be conditioned on religious affiliation.

As the charter school movement continues to grow, many questions remain to be answered. Of primary interest: How effective are charter schools?

Recent studies give their performance mixed reviews. But since most charters are less than three years old, it's much too early to judge how well they do compared to traditional public schools.

How accountable should they be? Congressional Republicans are pushing for federally funded charters with few rules. The Clinton administration favors funding additional charter schools, but wants more controls.

However these questions eventually are answered, the First Amendment issue isn't open to debate. Charter schools — like all public schools — must uphold the guiding principles of the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment.