Joe Biden

Facing Education Crisis, Biden Admin Seeks To Restrict Charter Schools

This is what public policy looks like when a major political party plays kissy-face with public sector unions.


American kids have suffered what is routinely characterized as a generational learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures. Students from disadvantaged communities, where school buildings have been more likely to be shuttered, have suffered much worse. The effects on the mental health of teenagers, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned in December, "has been devastating." And on an institutional level, despite record amounts of emergency funding from Washington, government-run schools, particularly in big cities, face sharp enrollment declines and a looming financial "Armageddon."

Amid this education-provision crisis, the Biden administration has made it an urgent priority to make providing education even harder.

In March, the Department of Education issued a proposed rule-making that would change the eligibility requirements for new charter schools seeking seed money from the federal government's $440 million Charter Schools Program (CSP). Reflecting the wish list of charter-hating teachers unions, and following the lead of union-influenced states like California, the new rules would disqualify for-profit charter companies, require a "community impact analysis" to demonstrate "unmet demand," and ask applicants to show how they plan to create a diverse student body and staff.

"They're beating on charter schools and they just need to back off," Texas charter school parent Gregory Harrington, one of reportedly hundreds who protested outside of the White House Wednesday, told The Washington Post.

The CSP was launched in 1995 during the first Bill Clinton administration as a way to goose the then-nascent sector, which uses a blend of public money, private management (i.e., generally no unions), and stricter accountability standards to pursue innovation in an industry beset by organizational sclerosis and bloat. Unlike most government-operated schools, charters that fail to produce results tend to get their plugs pulled quickly.

CSP start-up grants, which run around a half-million dollars each, have seeded roughly half of the country's estimated 7,500 charters (which educate around 8 percent of public schoolchildren). But over the duration of the program's existence, the Democratic Party, whose politicians now receive 99 percent of teachers union political giving, has soured on charters, to the point where anti-charter animus has become a litmus test for national ambition.

"I am not a charter school fan," Joe Biden declared on the campaign trail in February 2020, adding, inaccurately: "Because it takes away the options available and money for public schools."

A sprinkling of Democratic politicians who came of political age in the 1995–2015 era, when charters were routinely championed by Democrats (and when test scores at long last were on the rise), has reacted to Biden's proposed rule changes with chagrin.

The new rules would "create chaos and limit public school choice" and "gut" the CSP—"a program that I helped update and greatly expand, with bipartisan support, during my time in Congress," Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) warned in The Washington Post last month. "[They] would halt innovation in its tracks and make it harder for communities to meet the educational needs of their students."

Similar points were made by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Michael Bennet (Colo.) in a joint May 5 letter with GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Tim Scott (S.C.), Richard Burr (N.C.), and Bill Cassidy (La.).

"Since 2020, student enrollment has increased at charter schools despite the COVID-19 public health crisis," the senators wrote. "During the 2020-2021 academic year, nearly 240,000 new students enrolled in charter schools, representing a seven percent growth as compared to the previous academic year. This clearly demonstrates how critical the CSP is, as it is the only federal program dedicated to supporting the creation of new public charter schools….We are concerned that these requirements would make it difficult, if not impossible, for new public charter schools start-ups, and for high-performing public charter schools seeking to replicate or expand, to access CSP funding. In addition, the proposed rule would add significant burdens and time to an already complex application process, with little time for technical assistance, particularly for the upcoming 2022 grant cycle."

In my ideal policy world, the federal government wouldn't have anything significant to do with charter schools, or any other type of K-12 institution, since education in the United States is administered on the state and local levels. With federal funding eventually comes federal strings attached, subject to the whims of national politics and motivated rent-seekers.

In the fallen world we live in, the industry has been structured in part around funding from Washington, which will now be harder to come by and directed toward applicants who better fulfill Democratic Party priorities (if the rules are adopted, that is).

The guidelines have provoked a larger-than-usual amount of negative public comment, in addition to withering criticism by newspaper editorial boards ("a flagrantly wrongheaded policy," concluded The Washington Post) and plausible charges that an administration noisily obsessed with racial "equity" is backing a policy that will hit poor minorities hardest.

In response to the criticism, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona posted a defensive tweetstorm Wednesday, insisting unconvincingly that, "Our proposed priorities are aimed at making sure students are delivered the highest quality education in excellent public charter schools. Because students, their families and communities are our top priority."

The $440 million figure from the federal government is the same as four years ago, when both the number of charter schools and the amount of cumulative inflation were both more than 10 percent lower than today. The likely 2022 impact of making a less valuable chunk of federal charter seed money more difficult to access is that there will be fewer new charter schools, at a time when everybody from Biden to Cardona to any parent or teacher you know can tell you that K-12 education is seeing its most significant crisis in at least a generation.

The move adds more evidence to a growing suspicion about Democratic and teachers union priorities over the past seven years, particularly during the policy debacle of COVID: They are putting students last.