Charter Schools Win a Washington Battle

A classroom at Henderson Hammock Charter School in Tampa, Florida.


Douglas R. Clifford/Zuma Press

Congratulations to the thousands of public charter school parents, educators and advocates who have spoken out against the US Department of Education’s proposed changes to the state charter school program. Thanks to their tireless advocacy, the recently adopted final rules are more streamlined and slightly less onerous than the bull-in-a-china-shop scheme the ministry unveiled in March.

Congress established the CSP in 1994 to provide federal assistance to children underserved by traditional public schools. The CSP has benefited from the support of every presidential administration since – up to Joe Biden. Though the program represents a tiny fraction of the federal education budget, the return on that investment has been high: The millions of dollars in grants that the CSP awards each year enable thousands of new public charter schools to open or add additional campuses. The vast majority of these schools are located in urban centers where they primarily serve low-income and minority children.

The department’s proposed rules would have required that a charter public school applying for a CSP grant partner with a traditional public school — in other words, a competitor. The grant-seeking public charter school would also have had to demonstrate a “need” for a new school based solely on enrollment at the traditional schools in the district — ignoring that charter schools serve many purposes beyond alleviating overcrowding . The school would also have had to demonstrate that its student population was “diverse.” Never mind that many traditional schools are not. This last requirement overlooks both the realities of the US housing market and the desire of some minority communities, such as Native Americans, to create culturally relevant schools that serve specific student populations with unique needs.

What explains the hostility of the administration? Teachers’ unions are important political contributors to Democrats. They detest charter schools, staffed largely by non-union staff, and create competition for traditional schools. As charter school enrollments have increased across the country, the unions’ fight to slow their growth has become increasingly aggressive. Teachers’ strikes in Chicago and Los Angeles included demands for caps to stem the growth of charter schools.

The Biden administration is so closely aligned with the unions that First Lady Jill Biden chaired an event at the American Federation of Teachers convention last week. But the attack on charter schools goes beyond the executive branch. Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee are trying to codify elements of the department’s rules in the fiscal year 2023 budget, which the committee approved in a party-line vote on June 30. The committee’s Democrats are also trying to subject charter schools to extreme scrutiny of their Covid relief funds — a review of the legislation would spare traditional schools.

Democrats should reconsider if the budget bill makes its way into the House and Senate. Many of the voters who will have to choose her in November are parents.

Ms. Pankovits is co-director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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