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Biden’s new rules will slow the growth of the Charter

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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona watches as President Joe Biden speaks to students in a classroom during a visit to Luis Muñoz Marin Elementary School in Philadelphia, Friday, March 11, 2022.

Applying for a federal grant to support the creation of new charter schools will be much more difficult. This is the result of the draft provisions of the Charter Schools program, which the Biden administration released for public discussion in March. This is an unfortunate proposition at a time when new research confirms that charter schools are a value not only for their students but also for the wider communities in which they work (seeBig picture of charter school resultsFeatures this question).

For nearly three decades, Congress has been allocating funds to help charter schools with start-up costs such as staffing, training, facility improvements, and public engagement activities. The bulk of the money goes first to state education departments, which in turn allocate grants of up to $ 500,000 to statutory schools preparing for reopening, re- or expansion. When Congress last resumed the program in 2015, it allowed successful charter management organizations to apply directly to the U.S. Department of Education for comparable support.

The program is modest by federal budget standards – $ 440 million has been allocated by Congress this year – but over time it has become a major factor in expanding the charter sector. Moreover, states, none of which are willing to leave federal money on the table, often design and implement their charter school programs according to the criteria that Congress uses to select grant applicants.

This is one of the reasons why the administration’s recent proposal is so alarming. Among other new requirements, the regulation requires applicants to submit a detailed “public impact analysis” showing that the number of schools they propose to open or expand “does not exceed the number of public schools needed to meet public demand”. The language says nothing about the quality of existing schools. This will effectively prevent the opening of federally supported charter schools in a growing number of flat-area or declining number of students – often in places where high-quality options are least.

The regulation will also require applicants to cooperate with a traditional public school or county in an “activity that would benefit all partners in the partnership” – a nice-sounding concept that would actually give counties a veto over the extension of the statute. Applicants will even be required to provide “a letter from each traditional public school or partner school district demonstrating a commitment to participate in the proposed charter and traditional collaboration”. Charter entrepreneurs who will not be able to find a willing partner are unlucky.

The whole proposal seems to reflect the view, actively promoted by teachers ’unions and their political allies, that charter schools are a drain on school district resources that need to be tolerated, if at all, as foci of innovation in expanding systems. This same perspective has led to major amendments to state law on statutory schools in recent years, including a move by California in 2019 that allowed counties to reject applications for charter schools based not on the quality of the proposal but its impact on their finances. The result was a sharp slowdown in the growth of charters at the national level in the years leading up to the pandemic, as opposed by opponents of the charter.

However, research arguments for expanding the charter sector continue to strengthen. In this issue, Doug Harris and Feng Chen of Tulane University offer the most comprehensive analysis of how charter schools affect the joint performance of both statutory and traditional public school students in the school districts in which they are located. Looking across the country and comparing counties with a significant charter presence, with those that do not have charter schools, they find a significant increase in both test scores and high school graduation rates. David Griffith’s study in January 2022 for the Fordham Institute, “Still rising: school enrollment in the Charter and student achievement at the metropolitan level”Similarly found that more enrollment in the charter is associated with increased academic performance in black, Hispanic and low-income students.

If the heads of the Biden administration are not affected by these findings, the reality underlying them will be compelling for many families who have decided to enroll their children in charter schools. Despite a surprisingly short window for public comment, more than 25,800 members of the public, many of them parent parents, weighed the proposed rule by April 18th. A group of 17 Republican governors has written to Education Secretary Miguel Cardone to register their objections to the proposed changes. When last year the same deaf draft rule on civic education grants caused a stir, the administration backed down and replaced the rule with something more reasonable. Hopefully this model prevails again.

– Martin R. West

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