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Biden tackles charter school spending

Jeff Bryant
Progressive Perspectives (TNS)
US President Joe Biden(R) and First Lady Jill Biden (C) visit the classroom of fifth-grade teacher Cindy Bertamini, at Yorktown Elementary School in Yorktown, Virginia on May 3, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

President Joe Biden is taking steps to ensure that federal education funding will not be squandered on unneeded, mismanaged schools and the operators wanting to profit off of taxpayer dollars.

But these efforts are being opposed by the powerful charter school lobby, which has long enjoyed a privileged status in the U.S. Department of Education. For example, the DOE grants charter operators’ exclusive access to an annually renewable grant program established under the government’s Charter School Program.

Since its inception in 1994, this program has awarded an estimated $4 billion to charter schools, charter industry-related advocacy and support groups, as well as state grant programs that fund charters. This year, its budget was $440 million. So where has all that money gone?

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A 2019 analysis of the Charter School Program conducted by the Network for Public Education revealed that 37% of the program’s grantees — 1,779 charter schools — had either never opened or had quickly shut down after receiving federal funds. And more than $158 million in grant money from the program went to charter schools owned by for-profit operators between 2006 and 2017, despite a 2006 court ruling that upheld the decision to ban the program from supporting for-profit companies.

The Biden administration’s proposals would address this wasted and misguided spending. To ensure federal funds don’t go to charter schools that never open or quickly close, the DOE proposes that grant applicants seeking to open a new charter school — or replicate or expand an existing one — should submit a community impact analysis demonstrating there is “sufficient demand” for the school.

Given that the No. 1 reason charters close is due to financial problems — typically caused by a school’s inability to enroll enough students — it makes sense that any effort to grow charters should be based on some analysis that shows the school will be viable.

Because poor management is the second-most frequent cause of charter school closures, the Biden administration is also proposing that any recipient of charter grants should “collaborate” with a public school or school district on critical activities such as transportation or teacher professional development.

To bring the Charter School Program in line with the department’s requirements, the Biden administration is strengthening the regulatory language to bar grant money from going to charters in which a for-profit management company “exercises full or substantial administrative control over the charter school.”

Charter school industry lobbyists have responded to these proposals with a campaign of hyperbolic misinformation.

In an email to constituents, Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, calls the proposed regulations “a backdoor attempt to prevent new charter schools from opening.” The right-wing National Review equated the Biden administration’s proposals to a “war on charter schools,” while the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal labeled the proposals “charter school sabotage.”

But very few of the roughly 7,700 charter schools or the 3.4 million students enrolled in them will be affected by these regulatory changes. And charter lobbyists have provided no data showing how the changes will slow new charter growth, which jumped by a robust 7% between 2020 and 2021.

The reason for conservatives’ ire has everything to do with the fact that Biden’s new guidelines are poised to regulate an industry that has operated, for far too long, with an astonishingly low level of oversight.

— Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.