Charter school advocates from across the country – mostly Black and Hispanic school leaders, teachers, students and parents – descended on the Education Department and the White House on Wednesday morning to deliver a message to the Biden administration and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “Back off.”
At issue is a proposed regulation for the federal Charter Schools Program, a long-standing grant that provides start-up funding for new charter schools and helps already established charters expand. For the past five years, the program has been level-funded at $440 million – less than 1% of all federal spending on K-12 education.
If adopted, the new rule would require prospective applicants to conduct a “community impact analysis” to determine whether the new charter school has community support, whether it is being proposed in response to unmet educational needs – such as over-enrollment in nearby traditional public schools – and whether it would increase school segregation. The new rule would also prioritize funding for charter schools that work with neighboring traditional public schools, withhold funding until a prospective charter school is approved to open and prohibit the use of funds going to for-profit charters, among other things.
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For charter school leaders and advocates, the proposal is the latest in what they see as an increasingly hostile effort by Democrats – and the Biden administration, in particular – to prevent the sector from expanding. They argue the proposed regulations are too onerous, would prevent new applicants from applying and established charters from expanding, especially those in urban school districts where enrollment in K-12 schools is plummeting.
“Charter schools are under attack,” says Miriam Raccah, executive director of the Bronx Charter School for the Arts, which operates an elementary and middle school with hopes to launch a high school in the coming years. “The proposed changes to the charter school program will make it more difficult for schools like mine to get the funding they need to open and expand.
“In truth, if the CSP funding is not available to us then we will not be able to do that,” Raccah said about opening a high school. “As a woman of color running a charter school, philanthropy is not available to us. We need the federal government to help us open schools.”
Among the roughly 1,000 demonstrators rallying at the White House on Wednesday morning, the frustration that rang the loudest and most often was that administration and Education Department officials are out of touch with the needs of Black and Hispanic students and their families.
“The Democrats during their presidential election decided to attack charter schools and they forgot who they were serving,” said Jay Artis-Wight, interim executive director of the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, a group formed in 2019 to specifically advocate for Black and Latino charter school leaders and the families of color they serve.
When former President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden entered the White House in 2008, roughly 1.4 million students were enrolled in 4,600 charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. By the end of the administration, more than 3 million students were enrolled in 7,000 of them.
But today, the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction, and Biden, now president, hasn’t minced words.
“I’m not a charter school fan,” he said campaigning ahead of the presidential election.
“At a time when we know parents across this country are fed up with the system,” Artis-Wight said, “for some reason the Democrats have not been courageous enough to speak up about how charter schools are impacting their community.”
“But Black and brown charter school leaders are here, we will be here, we have always been here.”
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says that’s not the case at all.
“I do support high-quality public charter schools and I’ve seen examples of their effectiveness,” he said when asked about the proposed regulations during a House Appropriations Committee Hearing last month.
“What I do think we have are reasonable expectations around getting an understanding about what the needs are in the community,” he said.
In a series of statement posted to Twitter on Wednesday morning while the rally was ongoing at the White House, Kelly Leon, press secretary for the Education Department, attempted to “clear up a few misconceptions we’ve heard consistently,” she said, including that the impact analysis would mean that charters would only be eligible for funding if they could show that traditional public school enrollment is at or above capacity.
“Highlighting demand for charters in a community could also mean showing waitlists for existing charter schools or a desire for different approaches than what traditional public schools offer,” she said.
In addition, Leon said that the proposed rules wouldn’t require charter schools to have commitments from traditional public schools to collaborate in order to receive grant funding.
“We’ve seen successful outcomes for students & communities when there is collaboration and hope to encourage more of it,” she said. “But this proposal would not be a requirement, and charters could still receive grant funding if they did not propose these types of collaborations.”
Even still, the regulations are being pursued at a precarious time for the Biden administration, with Democrats increasingly on the defensive when it comes to the state of the county’s public school system and with the 2022 midterms on the horizon.
“It’s politically tone deaf,” says Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
After two years of pandemic disruptions to education, school leaders are scrambling to help students recoup months of academic setbacks – an average of four to eight months of setbacks in math and reading for white students compared to an average of six to 12 months for students of color, according to one analysis from McKinsey & Company. And for those who were already behind before the pandemic, achievement gaps widened, with students from low-income families and students of color falling even further behind as white students and students from middle- and high-income families have almost entirely rebounded from academic losses they incurred.
In addition, K-12 enrollment is down – especially in the country’s biggest school districts and in grades that serve the youngest children – and chronic absenteeism is on the rise. In New York City and Los Angeles, for example – the two biggest school districts in the country – upward of 40% of students are considered chronically absent, meaning they’ve already missed 10% or more of the current school year.
The mounting challenges come as students navigate an increasingly dire mental health crisis, including rising rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm, which have been particularly acute for LGBTQ students who lost their school-based support systems during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, charter schools serve about 3.6 million students, roughly two-thirds of whom are from low-income, Black or Hispanic communities. During the 2020-21 school year, the sector experienced a 7% increase in enrollment and several states passed legislation to expand the sector.
“Talk to your members of Congress,” Rees said to the crowd before some of them headed to the Capitol to meet with their congressional representatives. “They work for you. They need to know that they’re in office because of each and every one of you.”
The Education Department received 26,550 comments on the proposed regulations and is in the process of reviewing them before making a final decision next month.