As a presidential candidate in 2019, Joe Biden agreed with National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García’s claim that charter schools – independently operated public schools of choice, that don’t have to follow the litany of rules and regs that traditional public schools do and are rarely unionized – are “very misguided school reforms.” The fact that charters are very popular, which over a million waitlisted students will attest to, doesn’t make a whit of difference to Biden or teacher union leaders.
Then in May 2020, Biden said that if he is elected, “Charter schools are gone.” Period. His policy advisor Stef Feldman tried to soften the statement, explaining that Biden doesn’t want to get rid of charters, but instead would “require them to be authorized by and accountable to democratically-elected school bodies such as school boards and be held to the same levels of transparency and accountability as district schools.” In other words, he would not eliminate charters, but he would eviscerate them.
To assist Biden with policy decisions, the National Education Association came out with a “policy playbook” in November 2020, which details specific actions the union wanted the Biden administration to adopt. Predictably, their prescriptions are all far left and cover a multitude of issues, including some harsh words for charters. In a nutshell, NEA wants to regulate them to death, so that there is no effective difference between them and traditional government-run schools. The union also vaguely states that it opposes “all charter school expansion that undermines traditional public schools.”
The government’s move to weaken charters began in July 2021 when House Democrats voted to cut $40 million from the federal Charter Schools Program. The 28-year-old federal CSP helps charter start-ups pay for things like technology and staff. The funds go primarily to state agencies, which award the money to charters, and to nonprofit charter management organizations. The cuts came despite an overall 40% increase in federal education funding to $102.8 billion. Currently, Congress appropriates $440 million for the CSP, which is less than 1 percent of federal spending on K–12.
And now, the Biden administration is proposing several rules that could damage charters even more.
One of the more onerous new regulations is that charter schools would have to submit a federally defined community impact analysis to show that there is “demand” for the school, which would override any state laws on the matter. Charter schools would exist only to serve “extra” students that exceed district capacity. Given that most underperforming schools are under enrolled and almost every district in the country saw a decline in school participation last year, this proposed guideline is impossible to meet.
Another oppressive rule declares that charters would have to show “plans to establish and maintain racially and socio-economically diverse student and staff populations.” As things stand now, charter schools serve chiefly minority students in big cities. Charter advocates worry this needless diversity rule could discourage schools that don’t have racial diversity as a centerpiece in their enrollment models. The mandate could also deter schools from opening in suburban areas, or from hiring white teachers even if they are qualified.
Additionally, charters seeking federal funds would be strongly encouraged to “collaborate with at least one traditional public school” and “provide a letter from each partnering traditional public school or school district demonstrating a commitment to participate in the proposed charter-traditional collaboration.” This is bit of insanity as akin to forcing Walmart to collaborate with a nearby Target before opening for business.
Charters would also be required to make extensive reports on any goods and services they purchase from for-profit entities. This bit of unnecessary make-work is really strange as it is no secret that all schools use some private businesses to exist. Think school lunches and textbooks.
As Fordham Institute Fellow Dale Chu notes, the new regs would effectively empower faceless bureaucrats at the Department of Education in D.C. to act like a national charter school board, “replete with heinous reporting and compliance requirements designed to bury charter operators seeking funding from Uncle Sam under an avalanche of red tape.”
One of the ironies here is that the ones who will be most hurt by the new regimen are the children who need charters the most – blacks and Hispanics, who Biden claims to champion. One expansive study finds that, nationwide, students in the charter sector made greater gains from 2005 to 2017 than did students in the district sector. “The difference in the trends in the two sectors amounts to nearly an additional half-year’s worth of learning. The biggest gains are for African Americans and for students of low socioeconomic status attending charter schools.”
In fact. according to a great majority of research on the matter, charter schools outpace traditional public schools (TPS). Typical is a 2019 study from the University of Arkansas, which shows that in eight major U.S. cities, charter schools outperform TPS in productivity in all eight. Charter school students have higher NAEP scores, and the authors find that “each dollar invested in a child’s K-12 schooling results in $6.37 in lifetime earnings in public charter schools, compared to $4.41 in lifetime earnings in TPS.”
One study, recently updated, shows that “urban charters boost the achievement of their own students and that they even have a neutral to positive impact on the achievement of children in traditional public schools….”
Importantly, during the pandemic the majority of charter schools surveyed by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) “demonstrated resilience and creativity in responding to the physical and social challenges presented by COVID.” In spring 2020, charter schools in California took an average of just four days to shift to remote teaching once they closed their doors. Charters in New York took an average of three days to make the transition, and those in Washington averaged just two days. By contrast, the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that 71 percent of districts in the U.S. did not yet require teachers to provide instruction in spring 2020. Not surprisingly, during the 2020-21 school year, charter school enrollment grew 7%, the largest increase in years according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
It’s worth noting that charter schools used to be popular with many Democrats. Notably, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were supporters. President Clinton signed the first Public Charter School Grant program, sponsored by members of both parties, into law in 1997. “We will expand our commitment to charter schools,” said President Obama in 2009. Even the Progressive Policy Institute said the new Biden administration proposals “seem designed to protect the interests of adults employed in local school districts at the expense of the children and their parents.”
But Biden, unlike his predecessors, has made no effort to hide any union fealty. In fact, he boasted to a crowd at a White House event in September 2021, “…I sleep with a NEA member every night.”
Yes, Biden is quite literally in bed with the teachers unions. But it’s the children of America who are getting screwed.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.
Photo: New Jersey Education Association