Bureaucratic gremlins attack charter schools

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Parents and kids lobby for charter schools in this Oct. 19, 2018, file photo.

In Washington, presidents and lawmakers come and go, but special interests dig in and never leave. They love to burrow into the sprawling federal bureaucracy, where they can stealthily wreak havoc on laws they don’t like.

If you want to catch these bureaucratic gremlins at work, take a look at the U.S. Education Department (ED). On March 14, ED proposed new regulations aimed at retarding the spread of public charter schools, despite growing public demand for them. During the pandemic, enrollment has declined in conventional K-12 schools, while charter schools have long waiting lists — around 50,000 children in New York City alone.

The target of this bureaucratic sabotage is one of President Clinton’s trademark innovations, the 1994 Federal Charter School Program (CSP). While state and local governments are chiefly responsible for operating elementary and secondary schools, CSP acknowledges a vital national interest in ensuring that all of America’s children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have access to a world-class public education.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case today. The nation’s poor communities have too many substandard schools, as reflected in stubborn achievement gaps by race and ethnicity. Judging by U.S. students’ underwhelming performance on international reading, math and science tests, mediocrity also abounds in many of our suburban schools.

The $440 million Charter School Program invests in public school innovation. Its start-up grants have been a prime catalyst of America’s public school choice movement, which has made high-quality public schools available to millions of low-income and minority families whose children too often are consigned to low-performing schools.

That’s why Barack Obama, the next Democrat to occupy the White House, built creatively upon Clinton’s modernizing reforms. His $4 billion “Race to the Top” initiative spurred a competition among states to craft plans for adopting higher standards, raising teacher quality, collecting performance data to help schools and parents measure their students’ progress, and turning around failing schools.

During his 2020 campaign, however, Joe Biden stepped back from his predecessors’ attempts to modernize America’s outdated, factory-style school model. Instead, he drew cheers from teacher unions by vowing to shut off federal support for charter schools that contract with for-profit management organizations.

ED’s proposed rules would make it difficult, if not impossible, for schools managed by for-profit companies to get federal funding. However, only 9.1 percent of the nation’s roughly 7,500 charter schools fall into that category. The remaining 90 percent are stand-alone, self-operating schools or are run by nonprofit groups.

Yet ED wants to heap onerous and unreasonable requirements on these nonprofit schools as well. For example, charter organizers would be compelled to “partner” with local school districts to enhance their chances of winning funding in federal school innovation competitions. In the real world, however, many traditional school districts resent competition from charters, which they see as luring away “their” students. In addition to this fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop problem, forcing charters to partner with often hostile districts would compromise what makes them effective — their autonomy. 

As they demonstrated throughout the pandemic, charters typically are more nimble and adaptable than traditional schools because they are freed from micromanagement by central school bureaucracies as well as restrictive union contracts.

Also disingenuous is a new ED diversity mandate that is oblivious to America’s demographic and geographic realities. Because schools of choice are most prevalent in America’s urban centers, they often serve disproportionately high numbers of low-income Black and Hispanic families. In other words, charter schools are working to reverse our society’s historic discrimination against these families and their children — yet ED now proposes to put the burden of reversing centuries of residential segregation on them.

Most insidiously, ED wants to give federal grant reviewers the power to override state and local decisions to authorize schools in the name of “community impact.” This amorphous standard seems plainly intended to stem the defection of families from district schools to charters and similar non-traditional public schools.

Under the new rule, charter applicants would have to demonstrate “sufficient demand” for new school seats. In practice, that apparently means they couldn’t open unless there’s a shortage of seats in a district. But charters were never intended to be temporary classroom trailers waiting to catch traditional schools’ overflow population. Nor do parents typically choose public charters for their children because of overcrowding.

More than 3.5 million U.S. parents today choose charter schools because they believe they are a better fit for their children. For some, that means higher quality instruction and outcomes; for others, a safer and more orderly school environment. Many choose charters because they offer specialized curricula and services not found in district schools.

A charter school network in New Orleans, for example, won a $4.9 million CSP grant in 2020 to open a new “Opportunities Academy” with a special mission. Chief Operating Officer Davis Zaunbrecher explains: 

“We are the only school in the state that serves students in a high school setting who are 18-21 with intellectual disabilities. We teach them independent living skills, job skills, and how to access community resources like public transit. This is an innovative program that would not have seen the light of day without our CSP grant.”

Thanks to pioneering efforts by state and local school reformers (mostly Democrats) a new model for 21st century public schools is emerging. It empowers parents to choose schools, shifts decisionmaking power from central bureaucracies to school leaders, delivers personalized learning rather than one-size-fits-all instruction and provides real consequences for failing to lift all students’ performance.

In cities such as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Denver, Indianapolis, New York and Newark, charter schools, innovation schools, partnership schools and other non-traditional public schools have produced dramatic gains in student learning in impoverished communities.

As a matter of civil rights and social justice, the Biden administration should stand with low-income and minority parents who are demanding an end to second-class schools for their children. Instead, ED’s gremlins seem to be working on behalf of the adults employed in local school districts at the expense of children and their parents.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags charter schools Clinton Department of Education Joe Biden teacher unions

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