“The age of school choice is here,” stated Preston Green, Ed.D., J.D., during the annual 2022 Barbara L. Jackson Lecture held online October 19. Margaret Terry Orr, Ph.D., began the event by recognizing Barbara Jackson’s daughter, Caroline Jackson Smith, who was in attendance. Orr then introduced Green and the guest panelists, superintendents Sandra Montañez-Diodonet (Passaic, NJ schools) and Ray Sanchez (Ossining, NY schools). Dean José Luis Alvarado shared opening remarks and welcomed everyone to the lecture.
Green, professor of educational leadership and law at the University of Connecticut and the John and Maria Neag Professor of Urban Education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School, reviewed his well-researched insights during his lecture, “Developing a Model Civil Rights Statute in the Age of School Choice.” The goal of his research is to find ways to provide protections for students and communities in privatized school settings, using legal provisions in the U.S. Constitution as well as other federal laws.
Many of these protections are already present in a patchwork of state laws governing charter schools (which receive some public funding), tuition tax credits, and school voucher programs. Green emphasized, however, that there are three main dangers to consider when examining this group of existing laws: 1) loss of student civil rights; 2) increased fiscal stress for public school districts; and 3) creation of predatory contracts.
Green also acknowledged that student civil rights protections against various forms of discrimination are largely present in all school settings, with the important exceptions that the equal protection and due process clauses in the Constitution may not definitively apply in charter or private schools because of lack of clarity based upon current law. This lack of clarity creates potential and ongoing issues surrounding policies such as suspension and expulsion rules and school dress codes (including hair styles). According to Green, it is also important to note that private schools are not required to provide student protections related to sexual orientation, gender identity, English language learner status, or disabilities.
Green proposes that the way to address these widely varying standards is to pass model state-by-state laws (a number of states already have laws that address one or both clauses) or federal legislation that requires charter and private schools to comply with the Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses. Additional model legislation would be needed to change the status for students in private schools based upon sexual orientation, gender identity, English language learner status, or disabilities.
Green also addressed how to avoid the financial stress imposed upon fiscally strapped districts when funding is diverted to charter and private schools. He stated that districts should be required by law to perform a comprehensive educational impact analysis whenever new proposed schools are slated to receive public funding.
And when discussing the related issue of predatory contracts associated with non-public schools, Green revealed there are many serious problems that include egregiously high rent, unusually restrictive loan terms, and particularly unfavorable leases. His model legislation would require that charter school properties be state-owned, and that leases and related transactions be based upon fair market values.
Green’s research has revealed that these challenges indicate that charter and private schools pose dangers to students, school districts, and communities. Thus, his proposed model statute solutions would require protections against those dangers.
Following the conclusion of the lecture, Montañez-Diodonet and Sanchez shared their particular experiences and observations related to the issues Green illuminated. Montañez-Diodonet commented that she has tried to address challenges related to funding drains associated with non-public schools by utilizing opportunities and existing resources within her public district to create broader choice for students Sanchez stated that in his district, too, funds directed to charter schools have made noticeable impacts on his district’s budget.
Lecture attendees noted concerns, too, including questions about how religious charter schools might eventually be regulated and how public and private schools are and will potentially be defined in the future. When asked what educators might do to affect change, Green had this basic piece of advice: “Communicate with your local politicians.”