President Biden’s Department of Education Wages War on Charter Schools
A recent regulatory proposal issued by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) takes aim at charter schools nationwide, marking the Department’s latest overreach on state-run education systems. The new regulation, if implemented, would implement several new requirements for charters seeking federal funding help. Among those is a requirement that charter schools collaborate with local school districts in order to receive federal funding.
To be clear, charter schools can and should be collaborating with local school districts to share best practices. However, the regulatory proposal from the DOE would require charter schools to produce a letter from the local school district confirming the collaboration – a policy that, at worst, risks allowing hostile school boards to unilaterally deny funding to a charter school by withholding their consent and, at best, making unfair demands of a charter as a precondition for their signature on the required letter.
Charter schools are effective because they adhere to stricter accountability and transparency standards in exchange for autonomy, all while remaining public schools. This gives charters the ability to reimagine teaching and learning, quickly adapting their policies based on how students are progressing. Traditional public schools, on the other hand, must adhere to all state and local requirements governing education and cannot make the same rapid adjustments.
During the pandemic, charter school enrollment grew by a quarter-million students as frustrated parents pulled out of their traditional public schools over things like mask mandates and controversial curriculum. This set off alarm bells at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who commented that DOE’s proposal would “move to restore charter schools to their original purpose by integrating them into the broader education community.”
This stands in sharp contrast to AFT’s own strong support for charters back in 1988. At that time, AFT’s president, Albert Shanker, acknowledged that 80% of American students were not being reached and advocated for charters as a way for teachers to try new things, learn what works, and avoid what doesn’t. Shanker recognized that charter schools need autonomy in order to reimagine the learning – and teaching – experience, correctly observing that, if the charter’s ideas failed, then parents would simply leave.
The DOE’s proposal frames the new requirement as ensuring that charter schools collaborate with their traditional counterparts. But by requiring a letter confirming this collaboration as a condition for federal funding, the DOE has found a way to circumvent state laws and, in some cases, give local school districts the unilateral authority to kill a charter school application. For example, if a charter school proposal is relying on federal funds to obtain land and construct a facility, denial of those funds would have the effect of killing the charter application.
Advocates of charter schools emphasize the importance of having multiple authorizing entities. This can include state university systems, local school districts, a statewide authorizing entity, and others. This offers a charter school multiple paths toward acceptance and eliminates the risk of a single entity, like a traditional school district, refusing to allow any charters at all. The DOE’s regulatory proposal essentially negates the ability of a charter school to seek approval from entities besides the school district, even if state law permits them.
Policymakers looking to expand the number and quality of charter schools in their state can look to ALEC’s Next Generation Charter Schools Act, which offers a template to maximize accountability and transparency while giving charters the autonomy necessary to improve learning.