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Why the latest fight about charter rules matters — for schools and education politics

Two men wearing protective masks fix a sign on a bright Spring day outside of Roseville Community Charter School in Newark, N.J.

Arthur King, left, and Melvin Watson, right, help drill the Roseville Community Charter School sign back in its place in April, 2021. New rules proposed by the Biden administration would affect which proposed charter schools win federal grants.

Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat

“I am not a charter school fan,” Joe Biden said when he was running for president. 

Right now, charter school advocates aren’t fans of President Biden either.

The Biden administration has proposed new rules for a federal program that offers start-up money to charter schools. Reflecting longstanding critiques of the charter sector, the rules would consider how prospective charter schools affect nearby district schools. 

The move has drawn support from politicians and organizations skeptical of charter schools. But charter advocates see this as a plot to limit their growth. Their pressure campaign against the rules has garnered support from conservatives outlets and politicians, as well as Colorado’s Democratic governor and the Washington Post editorial board. 

It’s a fight that is a long time coming — a culmination of more than a decade of shifting politics around charter schools, in which they have gone from a bipartisan darling to polarizing policy. At the same time, the backlash underscores the significant political capital that charter supporters maintain. Charter schools as a political force at the federal level may be down, but they are not out.

“This move will likely please teachers unions and Democrats,” said Zachary Oberfield, a political scientist at Haverford College, where he’s studied charter schools. Still, he thinks officials may have underestimated the backlash. “I don’t think this is a slam dunk politically for the Biden administration.”

The regulations could affect where and whether charter schools grow

The proposed regulations would apply to the federal Charter Schools Program, created in 1995 to help charter schools open and grow. The education department has awarded billions of dollars in grants in the years since, and most charter schools that opened between 2006 and 2016 received CSP dollars. 

The new rules wouldn’t affect existing charters. But for proposed schools looking for federal help, the rules would, among other things:

  • Give priority to charter schools that collaborate with school districts. Schools that do things like share best practices or coordinate transportation plans would receive priority for the funds.
  • Require a “community impact analysis.” This would delve into whether a prospective charter school has community support and is in response to “unmet demand,” as evidenced by “over-enrollment of existing public schools,” among other things. That analysis would also have to provide evidence that the charter school would not exacerbate school segregation. 
  • Bar the use of some of the funding until the charter school has a facility and is approved to open.
  • Ban charter schools controlled by a for-profit company from receiving a grant. 

How the rules would actually affect the growth of charter schools is unclear. Biden has not sought to cut funding for the grants or end the program entirely. In general, the regulations would only affect how applicants for a grant are ranked. 

The community impact analysis, for instance, would be one metric in the grant competition, the regulations say. The rules also specifically note that schools that serve mostly students of one racial or economic background would still be eligible for a grant if the segregation were due to “community demographics.”

The “priority” for charter-district partnerships could be designed as an absolute requirement, a bonus, or simply a friendly invitation for those types of applicants. The regulations don’t say.

To charter advocates, these new rules — particularly the first two — capitulate to anti-charter arguments and could keep deserving schools from receiving start-up money.

They worry that the extra rules could discourage some applicants from applying in the first place because they find them too onerous or don’t think they would qualify. Advocates also fear that funds would be diverted from cities where they say charter schools are most needed and successful because that’s also where district enrollment has been declining the most

“The ultimate people who stand to lose the most from these rules are the very individuals that this administration would want to support — these are the teachers, leaders, community organizers at the local level who don’t have any other funding,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Luke Jackson, an education department spokesperson, declined to make anyone from the department available for an on-the-record interview. Jackson recommended that Chalkbeat speak to supporters of the proposal, including Carol Burris, executive director for the Network for Public Education, a group that opposes charter schools.

Department officials have insisted that the proposal is modest in scope and that the administration is not against charter schools. “I do support high-quality public charter schools and I’ve seen examples of their effectiveness,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said at a recent Congressional hearing. “What I do think we have are reasonable expectations around getting an understanding about what the needs are in the community.”  

He’s also described the critiques of the proposal as based on “misinformation.”

This fight is a test of charters’ political strength

The backlash to the proposed rules has been fast and furious.

Op-ed pages have been flooded with denunciations of the proposal. “Stop Biden’s and Democrats’ war on charter schools,” read the headline of a Fox News article. The Washington Post editorial board called the rules “flagrantly wrongheaded.”

A string of Republican elected officials have criticized the rules, and so have a few Democrats, including Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a charter founder himself, and three Democratic U.S. senators. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sent a series of alerts to its supporters. “Act Now: DC Bureaucrats Plan a New Attack on Charter Schools,” read one email. 

The department has received more than 20,000 public comments in response to the proposed rules  — many were critical, but many others are supportive.

Other support has come from prominent Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, as well as longtime critics of charter schools, including the national teachers unions and the Network for Public Education.

“The community impact analysis would address one of the most concerning features of urban charter schools in the U.S. — their potential to accelerate the concentration of the poorest and neediest students in the public schools they draw from,” wrote Philip Tegeler and Oluwatoyin Edogun of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, a D.C.-based advocacy group that supports the regulations.

The sentiments in the proposed rules reflect years of critiques about charter schools — that they exacerbate segregation, hurt school district finances, and are sometimes run for profit. Those ideas have clearly influenced the Biden administration — unlike other presidential administrations, which consistently backed charter schools.

“It was one of these rare and disappearing policy areas where Democrats and Republicans were not on totally different pages,” said Oberfield.

The regulations and the backlash highlight two key political realities: Charter schools have lost some of their support from Democrats, but they still retain significant political power, both through elite opinion and a now-large constituency of charter graduates, teachers, and parents. 

What happens next? The department will have to synthesize and respond to the thousands of comments that have come in about the proposed rules. Then officials will decide whether to make changes or stick with the proposal. 

Charter school advocates are hoping that the Department of Education will run this year’s CSP grant competition under the old rules.

Matt Barnum is a national reporter covering education policy, politics, and research. Contact him at mbarnum@chalkbeat.org.