Red-Tape Blues

Very tough to open a private or charter school in California

Nine years ago, Karen Feltch lined up overnight and slept on the sidewalk to get her 3-year-old daughter, Katie, into Friends Christian School in Yorba Linda. Katie is now in the seventh grade and hopes to attend a brand new Friends Christian High School, initially projected to open in 2006. Unfortunately, delays caused by the government’s unrelenting regulatory process, especially the required environmental study and myriad of permits, mean the new high school may not be finished on time – or finished at all.

The trouble building this high school is just one example illustrating the findings in a new Reason Foundation study: State and local government restrictions are discouraging the construction of new private schools and driving up tuition prices at existing schools.

With more and more parents seeking alternatives to failing public schools, many private schools are filled to capacity, offering long waiting lists and increasingly high tuition prices – the result of high demand and low supply. But entrepreneurs interested in launching new private schools are guaranteed to be engulfed in red tape and bureaucracy. For example, Michael Leahy, founder of the Alsion Montessori Middle/High School in Fremont, estimated that the natural cost of building his school was $400,000, but the total cost came to about $1.2 million because of numerous regulations, like the one requiring that he install a red tile roof.

Ray Youmans, president of Innovative Component Groups Inc. in Sacramento, explained that he hoped to build a 10,000-square-foot roof on a school property, simply a structure without walls, to protect the area from the rain and sun. The government required his company to install a $40,000 sprinkler system even though the structure was made entirely of steel and had no chance of catching fire.

The construction of Friends Christian Church High School should have been straightforward. In 2003, the city of Yorba Linda agreed to lease about 32 acres of public land to the Friends Christian School system for the construction of a 1,200-student high school campus. The lease, projected to generate $80 million for Yorba Linda over 50 years, also allows the city to utilize the private school’s facilities for community use. When the lease was signed, the church was expected to make a $400,000 payment by June 2004. However, regulatory roadblocks have pushed the payment back to June 2005. And as a result, the City Council says it will reassess the value of the property and may consider alternative proposals for the land (though council members say they still support the school).

What’s the holdup? The initial environmental impact study alone examined more than 80 specific impacts, such as whether the high school would have an adverse impact on the scenic vista, have an adverse impact on federal wetlands, result in an increase in the ambient noise level, or result in inadequate parking capacity. Once those questions are answered to the government’s satisfaction, the final report still must be signed off by the California Department of Fish and Game, the local Regional Water Quality Control Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Fostering a competitive education market, where private schools can flourish and expand the options for the many children who desperatelyneed them, requires legislators to act. Vouchers have long been debated in California. But even if the state ever awarded vouchers, there wouldn’t be anywhere near enough private schools to handle the demand.

At the local level, zoning, parking and building codes, and environmental requirements must be reassessed for merit and streamlined. A performance-based system would replace land-use restrictions with specific performance standards requiring schools to meet guidelines for things such as drainage controls, density, floor area and so on. An approach designed to deal with real and measurable impact would require fewer regulations and less paperwork, resulting in a faster and simpler approval process.

Right now, state and local regulations ensure that many entrepreneurs shy away from even attempting to build or open new schools. The process also guarantees that all school construction, even public school construction (think of Los Angeles’ Belmont Learning Center’s nearly $300 million price tag), is more expensive and takes longer than necessary.

Parents like Linda Feltch are willing to sleep on sidewalks to get their children into a limited number of private schools. If Feltch’s daughter, Katie, doesn’t get to attend the new Friends Christian High School because regulators made it impossible for the church to finish the school, it will be one more example of a miserable educational system failing students and parents.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.