Elected with the strong support of teachers unions, President Biden is repaying the favor by launching an ill-advised campaign against charter schools. But it’s the Black and Latino students who rely most on those schools who will be the biggest losers if his administration doesn’t withdraw new regulations that seem expressly aimed at depriving poor families of educational options.
The new proposals, from the US Department of Education, would make it more onerous for schools to receive federal startup grants and would hurt existing schools by hindering their expansion plans and limiting their capacity. They don’t quite fulfill Biden’s campaign promise to defund charters entirely, but are a step on that direction.
Charter schools are free public schools that operate outside traditional school districts, often answering directly to state regulators. They serve mostly Black and Latino families and often have long waiting lists. Nationally, nearly 70 percent of the 3.6 million students enrolled in charter schools are students of color, while two-thirds are economically disadvantaged. In Massachusetts, which has some of the best-performing charter schools in the nation, 74 charter schools serve roughly 46,000 students, of which nearly three-quarters are non-white, primarily Black (29 percent) and Latino (35 percent).
Charter schools are often nonunion, and thwarting them has become an increasingly important part of national teachers unions’ agendas.
The proposed new requirements relate to the federal Charter School Programs, which issue grants — typically around $500,000 per school — for new charter schools or expansions of existing ones. Roughly half of the existing 7,700 charter schools nationwide have taken advantage of the grants.
Some of the changes are sensible enough; they stem from a legitimate need to curb unscrupulous operators in states with light regulations. Charter schools must be run by nonprofit organizations to be eligible for federal grants. But many schools have found a loophole of sorts, subcontracting operations to for-profit companies. The new rules allow only limited outsourcing and make schools fully managed by for-profit companies ineligible for the federal grants. Approximately 12 percent of all charter schools fall under that category and thus would not qualify for federal dollars, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
But some other proposed changes amount to additional barriers of entry even for charters fully operated by nonprofit groups.
For instance, the proposal adds multiple monitoring, compliance, and paperwork requirements to the process of applying for the funds. It would also add some head-scratching new rules, including requiring applicants to include a “community impact analysis” that shows there is unmet demand for the new charter, such as submitting data of overenrolled districts.
What’s the point of all that busywork? Nobody has to attend charters, so in high-performing districts where parents are happy with the traditional public schools, charters are unlikely to open. And whether a district is over-enrolled or under-enrolled ought to be irrelevant. A terrible school district might have — in fact, is likely to have — plenty of open seats, but those are exactly the places where parents most need other options. Those new requirements would give a federal officer the power to reject the applications on the basis of factors that have nothing to do with school quality.
The proposal has prompted three Democrats to cosign a bipartisan letter to US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona earlier this month opposing the plan: Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Dianne Feinstein of California. Along with four Republicans — Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Tim Scott of South Carolina — they have asked Cardona to revise the new requirements, including the community impact analysis.
Charter schools in Massachusetts have been, by and large, a success, and it’s unreasonable and unfair to subject the high-quality schools to burdensome new requirements. Indeed, the newly proposed regulations “prioritize bureaucratic interests over the interests of children and families” and over “our duty to provide an equitable education to all children,” said Tim Nicolette, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, in a statement. There is room for charter school growth in Massachusetts: Places like Worcester, Fall River, and Brockton remain under the charter cap, meaning that prospective charter operators in those cities could be deterred by the regulations.
The possible loss of future options for families in those cities doesn’t seem to bother the state’s senators, though. A spokesman for Senator Ed Markey said he supported the regulations; Senator Elizabeth Warren says she supports ending federal funding for charter expansions altogether.
For too many of the Black and Latino families in the Commonwealth, though, charter schools represent an educational lifeline. The rules proposed by the Biden administration will surely limit those opportunities. Biden’s Education Department ought to go back to the drawing board.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial mischaracterized Senator Elizabeth Warren’s position on federal funding for charter schools. She opposes federal funding for expansion of charter schools.
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