Published On: Wed, May 18th, 2022

What Biden should say to charter school supporters now attacking him


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The Biden administration recently released proposed reforms to a nearly 30-year-old federal program that has provided billions of dollars in grants for charter schools, and predictably some charter supporters have launched an unrestrained attack.

The bipartisan charter lobby alleges, among other things, that President Biden wants to “gut” the Charter School Programs, is kowtowing to unions and is willfully harming marginalized students. One magazine piece has this headline: “Biden Abandons the Obama Legacy on Charter Schools” — as if that were something to behold — and this subtitle: “The Education Department chooses teachers unions over poor kids.”

That’s not what’s happening — for one thing, the administration hasn’t proposed cutting a dime from the program — but that hasn’t stopped the attacks on the proposals, which are being supported by Roberto Rodriguez, a strong charter school supporter who was an education adviser to President Barack Obama and is now Biden’s assistant education secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development.

Biden administration proposes tougher rules for charter school grants

“There is a bit of a mythology that this is an attempt to do away with charter programs or curb the programs or curb the growth of charter schools,” said Rodriguez in an interview. Sure, he could have turned against charters, but he hasn’t: “The administration supports high-quality schools, including high-quality charter schools.”

Charter schools are funded by the public but privately operated. They are not monolithic — no more than schools in traditionally operated public districts are. Each state has its own rules, some resulting in better-quality charter schools than others.

Charters enjoyed bipartisan support for years — and still do — but support within the Democratic Party has lessened because of real problems in parts of the sector that supporters don’t like to publicly address. They include repeated scandals of financial fraud and waste, mismanagement, segregation, and under-enrollment of students with special needs. Charter schools in some places also drain resources from school districts that educate most of America’s schoolchildren.

Before the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, about 6 to 7 percent of U.S. schoolchildren attended charter schools. Enrollment jumped during the pandemic — with most of the gain in virtual charters, which are the worst-performing schools in the sector — but new data shows the increases starting to fall.

The White House has been silent about the over-the-top protests — including an actual protest outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW with charter school students. The Education Department published tweets last week that, instead of calling out its critics for promoting falsehoods about its proposed reforms of the program, tried to explain what it was doing by saying, essentially, “It’s not as bad as you think.”

What Biden’s proposed reforms to U.S. charter school program really say

So here’s what Biden should have said to charter school supporters who are savaging the proposed changes to the Charter School Programs, which should be made final in the next few months after consideration of public comment:

Look, I didn’t expect you to love the changes my administration is proposing to the Charter School Programs. You have never been good at accepting criticism — but really, isn’t your reaction a bit much?

A bunch of you said I want to “gut” the program. Gut the program? Charter critics would love that, but that’s not what I’m doing. I have proposed to Congress that we keep funding at the same amount as last year — $440 million. So much for gutting.

I’ll add that the Education Department, even under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, couldn’t spend all of the money allocated to the program by Congress in 2019. That’s when more than $12 million was reallocated from the program to other federal education priorities due to a lack of demand for new charter schools in state and individual grants. During the coronavirus pandemic, some program money was allowed to be used for other purposes.

I have said my administration supports high-quality charters because it does. Charter opponents would rather we didn’t, but we do. But there are a lot of problems in the charter sector, and we can’t find any acknowledgment of that in your scorched-earth assault on us.

I expect that from Republicans — as George Will showed in a Washington Post column — that falsely said charters must “get permission” from a traditional public school to operate if our proposed reforms become official. They don’t — but let’s not let the truth get in the way.

And I expect that from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which sent out missives to supporters to speak out against the proposed reforms and launched media ads that accuse my administration of proposing changes that will hurt students of color.

Unfortunately, Democrats for too long have been part of this let’s-never-admit-there’s-a-charter-school-problem chorus. I read the op-ed that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat who started a charter school network in 2004, wrote in The Washington Post, which alleged that our proposed reforms would “create chaos and limit public school choice by instituting new rules that would gut” the program. As we said, we haven’t proposed cutting a dime, but, legally the money has to be paid out annually, whether there are good proposals for charters or not. We know full well that some applications that don’t adhere to all of the priorities we have set out in the proposed reforms will get federal money anyway.

I also read the letter that three Democratic senators, Cory Booker (N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Michael F. Bennet (Colo.) sent, along with Republicans, to my education secretary, Miguel Cardona, warning that our proposed program reforms “would make it difficult, if not impossible” for charter schools to build new facilities or expand. Love bipartisanship, but that’s just wrong.

I’ve also read editorials from charter school-supporting editorial departments. A Wall Street Journal editorial accused the Biden administration of sabotaging charter schools; a Washington Post editorial accused the administration of pandering to teachers’ unions and school district leaders. The headline of that piece calls our proposed changes to the charter funding program a “sneak attack.” A sneak attack in broad daylight?

I expect Republicans to accuse us of caving to teachers’ unions, but we’ve never understood the same from Democrats. My wife, Jill, and I, are big union supporters — she proudly belongs to the National Education Association — but let’s not kid ourselves about the power of the unions. If they had their way, do you think schools would look the way they do? Would teachers be forking out money of their own to buy basic supplies? Would we be worrying about Republicans — many of them racist — taking over Congress this fall? Would schools have broken HVAC systems and, in some places, unconscionably low teacher pay? Knock it off.

Do Democrats really think it’s a good time — with crucial midterm elections coming up — to ignore reality and falsely accuse a Democratic president of wanting to harm marginalized kids to kowtow to unions?

Your union accusations make it sound like unions are the only ones that support our changes. Far from it. House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.) wrote a public comment letter about what she called a “well-funded misinformation campaign incorrectly claiming” that a proposed reform “would prevent federal funds from going to any charter school that uses a contractor for any discrete service” — another claim by the charter lobby. Civil rights organizations such as the Southern Education Foundation have weighed in to support the proposed program changes; the foundation wrote:

Public funds are intended for public education, so we must invest in the charter schools that will serve their communities, provide equal access to high-quality instruction, and collaborate with the public school system to share successful innovations in teaching and learning that improve outcomes and opportunity for all students.

You talk about charters as if they were all the same, and you know they aren’t. Some are great. Some are awful. In 2016, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called for better regulation of virtual charter schools, a rare acknowledgment of big problems in the charter sector, but we haven’t heard much since.

Bottom line: TheCharter School Programs division needs reform. I have read reports by a nonprofit advocacy group that say since 2019, up to a billion dollars of federal taxpayer money has been wasted on charter schools that did not open or were shut down — and that the Education Department failed to adequately monitor federal grants to these schools. The advocacy group, the Network for Public Education, opposes charter schools. But that doesn’t make their research any less valid. If you want to take the time, you can read about that here and here.

If you don’t care for that, you can read the report the NAACP — one of the longest-standing civil rights organizations in the country — wrote after it called for a ban on charter school expansion until the charter sector is reformed and traditional public school districts are not financially harmed by the spread of charter schools. It says in part:

“Charter schools were created with more flexibility because they were expected to innovate and infuse new ideas and creativity into the traditional public school system. However, this aspect of the promise never materialized. Many traditional inner city public schools are failing the children who attend them, thus causing parents with limited resources to search for a funded, quality educational alternative for their children. …

With the expansion of charter schools and their concentration in low-income communities, concerns have been raised within the African American community about the quality, accessibility and accountability of some charters, as well as their broader effects on the funding and management of school districts that serve most students of color.”

By the way, despite some of your protestations, charter school are draining critical funding from some school districts with policies that make little sense. In Oklahoma, for example, numerous school district leaders got furious about a funding decision made last year by the state Board of Education that forced them to share funding for school buildings with virtual charter schools that don’t have school buildings.

Meanwhile, states including New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey public school districts must pay tuition to charter schools costing them far more than they would pay if the student stayed in the district. Districts have lost millions of dollars in funding that has been sent instead to charter schools. Pennsylvania law funds charter schools as if 16 percent of all of their students are in special education — which costs more than students not in special education — but charters aren’t required to count so nobody really knows. School districts count each special education student.

So let’s talk about what my administration is trying to do with the federal Charter School Programs and why. The changes, as Washington Post education reporter Laura Meckler wrote in a piece we read about the proposed reforms, “go a long way to fulfilling” a vow that Biden made while running for president. He said he wanted to eliminate federal funding of for-profit charter schools because that part of the charter sector has been riddled with financial scandal, private enrichment and other problems. The biggest change we are proposing would affect for-profit management companies that often run charter schools. We want those companies that run entire charter operations to be ineligible for grants.

Scandals in the for-profit sector of charters have contributed to some that disillusionment; for example, you can read here about how many for-profit management companies evade state laws banning for-profit charters — by setting up nonprofit charters and then directing the schools’ business operations to related corporations.

The story of a charter school and its for-profit operators

In our proposed charter program changes, we also would like to see applicants for federal grants prioritize charter schools that already have their charter school approved — yes, as it is now, applicants can get federal money without an actual school — and that would collaborate with school districts.

My education team and I know there is a great deal of discontent over our priority that charter school funding applicants show that there is some interest in the community for a new or expanded charter school — which, really, doesn’t seem unreasonable. Why should the public fund a school where there is no demand? School districts don’t do that.

The “community impact analysis” we would like to see from applicants includes a priority that the charter would not further school segregation. You say we are insisting that charters serve diverse student populations. We’d like that, but let’s be clear what the proposed reform actually says: that an application from “racially and socioeconomically segregated or isolated communities would still be eligible for funding.”

You may not realize this — or just don’t publicly admit it — but in some places, charter schools are being used as white-flight academies, like decades ago when the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling said segregated schools were unconstitutional.

In 2018, the federal Charter School Programs awarded a grant of $26.6 million to North Carolina to support “high-quality schools focused on meeting the needs of educationally disadvantaged students.” Thirty of the 42 charter schools that received CSP grants via the North Carolina Department of Education reported demographic information — and of those schools, more than one-third have significant overrepresentation of White students or a significant underrepresentation of Black students compared with the population of the public school district in which they are located. One overwhelmingly White private school, located near a public school with mostly Black students, was turned into a charter with the help of federal funding after making a pitch to families that included: “No current law forces any diversity whether it be by age, sex, race, creed.”

Is federal charter school funding financing white-flight academies?

I think it makes sense to ensure that federal funding isn’t being used to create white-flight academies. Do you?

There’s a lot more we could talk about that we haven’t addressed in our regulations. For example: Charter schools are supposed to be open to all students, but many of them employ more than a dozen tactics that allow them to shape their student enrollment. And did you know charter schools can be bought and sold and people can get rich from the sale of publicly funded schools?

13 ways charter schools restrict enrollment

Charter schools are publicly funded — but there’s big money in selling them

So, finally, can we move forward and keep our eye on the prize: making sure that America’s schoolchildren all go to high-quality schools? That’s what my administration and I are trying to do.





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