One of the hallmarks of charter schools is their unique ability to align closely with parents’ values. Every American has fundamental moral and ethical principles, some of which can’t always be accommodated by traditional public schools. Their comprehensive approach is meant to serve the broader society or “entire community” and is a good fit for millions of families—but not for all. It’s one reason we ought to embrace charters, especially those designed to serve families who otherwise would be stuck sending their kids to schools that violate their beliefs, particularly the millions who can’t afford private or home schooling.
King Charter School, which hopes to open in Pinellas County, Florida, minutes west of Tampa, is such a place. If approved, it would be America’s first vegan charter school. Yet because of bizarre federal regulations that favor the agriculture industry and an all-too-familiar local review process that’s stacked against charters, its application may be denied.
For readers unfamiliar with veganism, minimizing or forgoing the consumption of animal products in favor of a plant-based diet has become important to a significant portion of Americans. According to a recent Gallup poll, 3 percent identify as vegan, meaning they consume nothing produced by animals, be it meat, milk, cheese, butter, etc. Another 5 percent are vegetarian, going only without meat. Combined, these groups comprise 27 million people. And their proportion is higher among those most likely to have school-age children, topping out at 11 percent of those between the ages of thirty and forty-nine.
Some go vegan or vegetarian for health reasons, but many are driven by deeper motivations. Research has found that plant-based diets have reduced effects on carbon emissions, water consumption, and other ecological factors. So they’re more common and important to those who are especially concerned about climate change and environmental degradation. The same is true of people who are passionate about improving the welfare and protecting the lives of animals. In these cases, foregoing meat and related byproducts is a moral choice, and is the basis for what practitioners believe to be ethical behavior. It is, in other words, a very important part of their lives, and more than just a fleeting preference.
It makes sense, then, that some vegan families would like to send their children to a school that embraces these values and thereby helps further the causes they hold dear, perhaps one that looks at ecology, economics, biology, and history within a frame that aligns with their beliefs. Similar value-based institutions exist and thrive elsewhere, such as the decade-old Ethical Community Charter School in New Jersey, founded around principles of ethics, service, and social justice. So long as such places are open to all children and educate them in a manner that satisfies sensible school accountability measures and parent expectations, they should be permitted to open and continue running, even if they’re not what you or I would choose for our own children.
Instead, as too bedevils charter schools in America, political reasons threaten to block King Charter School’s approval until at least next year.
One hurdle is a federal regulation related to the free and reduced-priced meals available to all low-income public school students. Normally, schools provide breakfast or lunch to these children, and then get reimbursed by the government. Yet King may be ineligible because of a ridiculous, dairy-industry-induced regulation that says schools “must not directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk at any time or in any place on school premises or at any school-sponsored event.”
Another impediment is the Pinellas County charter approval process. Florida law requires applicants first to seek approval from the local school district in which they hope to open. Though denials can be appealed to a non-district entity, this can be prohibitively challenging for prospective operators. States with the strongest laws permit applicants to initially submit to independent authorizers. Doing otherwise, as Florida does, improperly empowers competitors to be gatekeepers. It’s akin to allowing Walmart to veto Amazon’s arrival in a community.
And indeed, Pinellas County doesn’t seem very friendly to charter schools. In 2017, for example, the school board voted 7-0 to join a group suing the state legislature to block a bill that gave charters greater access to local property taxes. This is a funding source that traditional public schools enjoy but charters often don’t, which contributes to their $5,828 per-pupil national funding deficit. The district may also, according to one Florida charter consultant, be prone to rejecting applications that would pass muster in Broward, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach counties.
It’s therefore unsurprising that King Charter School founder Maria Solanki told Reason that the officials were prepared to reject the school’s 400-page application due to a minor technical error that mistakenly allocated the wrong amount of time between classes. They also reportedly took issue with the curriculum, “even though it was far more comprehensive than what state law requires and written by a board member who once served as the state's science curriculum expert.”
Obstacles like these exemplify the various forces that prevent millions of American families from having access to schools to which, given the opportunity, they’d send their children. In their way are laws, rules, and attitudes that too often have little to do with academics or what’s best for children. Most harmed are the kids and families stuck in schools that don’t serve them well—or, in the case of vegans, practice in plain sight behaviors that they find immoral, offensive, and destructive.
Better would be approving distinctive places like King Charter School, provided their applications promise and describe institutions of sufficient quality, and then holding them accountable for results. If their academic outcomes are inadequate, officials can close them down. And if they aren’t supplying appealing options for families, moms and dads will send their kids elsewhere, and the buildings will shut their doors.
More importantly, embracing schools like King honors and strengthens American pluralism—the idea that diverse groups can and should be able to coexist and cooperate. Preserving this important principle, present in many ways since our country’s founding, is especially important today as our populace fractures and its fissures deepen. Our school systems, tasked with molding our young people to be good productive citizens, must resist these divisions. And in Pinellas County, Florida, supporting the opening of America’s first vegan charter school would be a worthy step in that direction.