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Brunswick charter school asks U.S. Supreme Court to take up dress code dispute

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Operators of a Brunswick County charter school are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to “review and reverse” an Appeals Court decision striking down the school’s uniform policy.

A petition Monday asks the nation’s highest court to take up the case involving Charter Day School. Critics had complained about the school’s requirement that female students wear skirts, jumpers, or skorts.

The full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 10-6 on June 14 to block Charter Day School’s uniform policy. The Appeals Court majority decided that the private, nonprofit charter school operator was a “state actor” bound by regulations set for traditional government-run schools.

Charter Day School “maintains that the Fourth Circuit ruling is flawed, running counter to long-standing analogous state-action rulings by both the Supreme Court and three federal appellate courts,” according to a news release announcing the Supreme Court petition.

“North Carolina charter schools — like many throughout the Nation — build upon a critical insight: Allowing private entities to operate publicly funded schools with minimal government oversight supercharges educational innovation and expands parental choice,” according to the petition. “The [court of appeals] decision … profoundly threatens this model.”

“This holding undoes the central feature of charter schools by treating their private operators as the constitutional equivalent of government-run schools,” Charter Day School argues.

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The petition cites dissenting Appeals Court Judge Marvin Quattlebaum. He wrote that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor any federal appellate court had labeled a publicly funded charter school as a “state actor” before the 4th Circuit’s split ruling in June. In similar cases, the First, Third, and Ninth Circuits had ruled that private education contractors did not engage in state action.

Charter Day School argues that the Fourth Circuit ignored prior rulings in cases with “the same or similar issues.” The petition also questions the Fourth Circuit’s finding that “providing education is a traditionally exclusive state function — like holding elections or exercising eminent domain — despite centuries of evidence to the contrary.”

The case involves more than just the fate of Charter Day School’s skirt requirement, the school argues. “The Fourth Circuit’s rationale lacks meaningful ‘limiting principles’ and would cover charter-school operators throughout the country,” according to the petition.

The 4th Circuit’s reasoning threatens charter schools’ independence, the petition argues. Citing a dissent from Judge Harvie Wilkinson, the decision could “send … education in a monolithic direction, stifling the competition” that leads to improvement.

Charter Day School, founded in 1999 in Leland, holds charters for four schools now known as the Classical Charter Schools of America. The original school in Leland enrolls almost 1,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The three other CCS-America schools, in Wilmington, Whiteville, and Southport, enroll 1,700 additional students. All four are Title 1 schools, meaning they serve high proportions of low-income students.

“The schools stress traditional values, such as truthfulness and respect, and use a classical curriculum and proven teaching methods, such as phonics-based reading instruction, grammar lessons beginning in kindergarten, and teaching history chronologically, starting in first grade,” according to the news release.

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