Charter school advocates launch lobbying blitz against White House proposal

Students, parents and educators with National Alliance for Public Charter Schools hold a rally outside the White House on Wednesday, May 11, 2022 as the Biden administration is proposing tougher regulations for charter schools to receive funding.
Greg Nash
Students, parents and educators with National Alliance for Public Charter Schools hold a rally outside the White House on Wednesday, May 11, 2022 as the Biden administration is proposing tougher regulations for charter schools to receive funding.

Charter school advocates are mounting an all-out push to defeat a Biden administration rule that they say would crush the industry. 

The proposed rule, unveiled by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last month, would cut off federal grants to charter schools run by for-profit companies, prioritize grants to charter schools that collaborate with local school districts and require prospective charter schools to prove that there is unmet demand for a new school, among other measures. 

Charter officials and parents on Wednesday dropped off boxes of letters urging the agency to scrap the rule at the Education Department and held a rally in front of the White House. They say that the changes would severely limit the growth of new charter schools and force numerous existing schools to close. 

“This is an existential threat,” said Debbie Veney, senior vice president of communications and marketing at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “One out of every two charter schools in the country has received federal start-up money. It would literally cripple the charter school sector.” 

The proposed requirements would create new roadblocks for charter schools applying for a piece of the federal government’s annual $440 million grant program. 

The rule requires prospective charter schools to conduct an analysis showing whether the school has community support and whether neighboring public schools are over-enrolled, a difficult bar to reach after most lost students during the pandemic. Opponents say the rule makes it difficult to open charter schools in Black communities or rural areas by prioritizing those that can bring in a diverse student body. 

Charter school backers are perplexed by another measure that prioritizes giving funding to charter schools that agree to partner with local school districts, an arrangement that they say school districts are unlikely to agree to. 

“This makes about as much sense as saying that the little mom-and-pop coffee shop needs to get a signoff from Starbucks in order to open up their coffee shop,” Veney said. “No, that’s never going to happen.” 

The rule would upend the roughly 1 in 10 charter schools that are managed by for-profit companies. That would lead to fewer options for parents even as demand for charter schools remains high, advocates say. Charter school enrollment stood at 3.4 million students in the 2019-2020 school year, making up about 7.2 percent of public school students, and grew by 7.1 percent during the 2020-2021 school year, according to the alliance.  

“In today’s world, where there’s a huge learning gap, even more so because of the pandemic, why put more barriers in place to allow charter schools to either open or continue to do well?” said Gregory Harrington, an Austin, Texas-based parent and charter school advocate.  

In their lobbying blitz, charter school supporters are warning Democrats that going after charter schools would hurt the party’s prospects in November’s midterm elections. They argue that traditional Democratic voters helped power Republican victories in the Florida and Virginia gubernatorial elections over the issue of school choice. 

In a series of tweets Wednesday, the Education Department said that charter schools wouldn’t be required to show over-enrollment to build a new school and noted that communities that lack diversity would still be eligible for grant funding.

In a recent hearing, Cardona said that the rule is intended to prevent wasteful spending, ensure that there is a community need for charter schools and spark more collaboration between charter schools and public school districts that typically operate as bitter rivals.  

“What I do think we have are reasonable expectations around getting an understanding about what the needs are in the community as a proposal to make sure that there’s interest and that these schools stay open,” Cardona told a House panel last month.  

Supporters of the rule, including some high-profile teachers unions, have long warned that under the current system, the growth of charter schools comes at the expense of public school districts’ finances, worsening outcomes for those students. They’ve also expressed concern that charter schools often aren’t subject to the same standards as traditional public schools.  

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote a letter to the Department of Education last month largely praising the rule, arguing that it would “move to restore charter schools to their original purpose by integrating them into the broader education community.” 

The proposal has sparked uproar from Republicans, who have long aligned themselves with charter schools, and a smaller number of prominent Democrats.  

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D), who previously founded a charter school, sent a letter to Cardona last month urging him to pause or scrap rules that he said would undermine local charter efforts.  

“Especially now, we do not need to add significant burdens on each applicant to make the case for charter schools when elected officials at all levels of government have already strongly voiced their favor by enacting laws, acting as chartering authorities, and providing funding for high-quality charter schools,” Polis wrote.  

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) last week joined Republicans in a letter to Cardona expressing concern that the new requirements “would make it difficult, if not impossible” for charter schools to build new facilities or expand. 

The charter industry could lean on lawmakers to quash the rule. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) warned in a letter to Cardona last week that Congress could repeal the finalized regulation under the Congressional Review Act, which requires a simple-majority vote in both chambers.

Updated 9:14 a.m. Thursday

Tags charter schools Jared Polis Joe Biden Miguel Cardona

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