Biden plans to change the rules for charter schools — and hurt vulnerable students

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

The Biden administration is poised to take the side of powerful political groups over children and parents — again.

Bowing to the American Federation of Teachers’ lobbying in early 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended slowing a return to in-person schooling that many students needed to get back on track. Many students whose prospects were most harmed by those closed classrooms now face another setback orchestrated by the White House.

In the latest example, federal officials are actively undermining parents’ ability to choose public school options that work better for their children. Many new school operators depend on grant money from the federal Charter Schools Program to get started. While leaving that money in the budget, the Biden administration is rewriting the rules to tie applicants’ hands and undermine the grant program’s purpose.

Under the proposed rule change, lengthy wait lists no longer would serve as evidence that parents demand a new charter school. Instead, an applicant trying to open a charter school in an area would have to satisfy bureaucrats that opening the new school would “not exceed the number of public schools needed to accommodate the demand in the community.” Charter applicants also would have to “collaborate” with nearby districts to be eligible for funding. Local officials could thwart potential competition with a federal agency’s blessing, regardless of what students may need.

Regulators also could reject start-up funds by determining that the new charter school wouldn’t serve a sufficiently diverse student body, a standard that doesn’t apply to conventional districts. Never mind that these non-traditional public schools attract mostly low-income and minority students. This proposal would diminish the ability of families in disadvantaged communities to gain access to a better school.

Enacting these regulations would deter enterprising parents and educators who want to create more options for families. For those willing to challenge the new gauntlet, the odds of success would be dramatically diminished.

Cutting off potential new options through a needlessly restrictive regulatory scheme would hamper schools that widely operate at a funding disadvantage. This challenge is especially true and poignant in high-need urban areas. University of Arkansas researchers found that charter schools in 18 major U.S. cities, on average, take in about two-thirds of the dollars per student that their neighboring districts receive.

The Mackinac Center produced similar findings across the state of Michigan. The inability to raise dollars through local property taxes, combined with an unfair distribution of some state budget line items, leaves charters at a 25 percent funding disadvantage per student. The proposed Biden administration rule would strike at one funding source where the two types of schools currently have parity: the federal treasury.

The restrictive rulemaking would protect the already enriched funding and status of unionized districts. It would not benefit students. Despite what some critics say, charter schools are often more accessible than other public schools. Districts can discriminate based on where students live and, at least in some states, can set up magnet programs with selective admission standards. Charters are unable to do either of those.

Charters’ ability to get similar or better results for fewer dollars makes them markedly more productive — a finding that plays out both in Michigan and in urban centers across the country. These schools exist and thrive as long as they deliver results, because families use their limited power to choose them. Having to depend so much on dollars from D.C., though, also makes charter public schools a politically vulnerable target.

The attacks shouldn’t come as a surprise. Before his election, President Biden followed the lead of other Democratic presidential candidates and broadcast that he was “not a charter school fan.” How quickly times have changed from the policies of his former boss and predecessor. When members of this year’s high school graduating class were still in the elementary grades, Barack Obama openly championed charter options for students.

Few elected Democrats are left to support charter schools, while many Republicans have focused their energies on expanding families’ access to scholarships and education spending accounts that open doors to private schools or other innovative options. But defenders of choice, ready to take a stand for whatever works best for students and families, can weigh in on the rule change by April 13.

The proposal would take an unfortunate step back for some of the nation’s most vulnerable students. We should be seeking to expand educational opportunities, not to deny them.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.

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