Charter schools have been part of the fabric of public education in the United States for decades. Like a patchwork quilt, there is a great deal of variation among them. Some have a history of improvements to student achievement, while others have been ineffective or even harmful. Some charter operators are fiscally responsible, while others have been deemed incompetent or fraudulent.
As with every public school, and every expenditure of taxpayer funds, reasonable oversight enhances the quality and accountability of charter schools. This is the goal of the Biden administration’s proposed modest changes to the federal Charter Schools Program. But some charter school proponents have responded to the proposed changes with a fierce and well-funded opposition campaign.
The charter lobby is pushing back with big TV ad buys and op-ed campaigns, claiming that the proposed regulations would “halt innovation in its tracks,” “gut the federal Charter Schools Program,” and impose a “needlessly restrictive regulatory scheme.”
In fact, President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2023 budget proposes a $440 million investment in the federal grant program for charter schools. The Biden administration is right to seek more oversight of this program. As with all federal funding, there are rules to ensure proper use of the money. One study from the advocacy group Network for Public Education found that between 2006 and 2014, $45.5 million was handed out to charter schools that never even opened.
The charter lobby is chafing at one provision in particular—the requirement for applicants for Charter Schools Program startup funds to provide a community-impact statement. For the first time, the program requires charter operators to state how their new school would impact the surrounding community. The intent is to ensure that the applicant has engaged with residents in planning for the school, that there is a need for a new charter school in the community, and that the school won’t promote racial segregation.
For charter schools to truly contribute to the fabric of education, they must be integrated into the broader education community in the United States. This is the kind of community engagement everyone, including charter detractors, should welcome.
Every school system in America, when it considers where to build a new school, considers the proposed school’s impact on the surrounding community from which it will draw students. Charter schools should not be islands unto themselves, nor should they thrust themselves onto communities that do not want them there.
Charters that function as centers for innovation and best practices for public schools should be welcome in every community. A charter industry that advocates and benefits from the closing of traditional public schools is not welcome.
Take the example of Detroit, where between 1995 and 2016, 152 charter schools opened, contributing to the closure of 195 traditional public schools in a city that already had a declining student population. This left some neighborhoods with no public schools—traditional or charter.
To clear up another misconception, charter school operators that don’t want to consider their impact on their communities remain free to not do so. The proposed requirement doesn’t change that. Charters can still exist and receive state and local funding; they would simply forgo access to federal funding through the Charter Schools Program.
Responding to parents’ and communities’ needs is what many charter school operators say they are all about. Yet, this responsiveness happens less than it should. In 2017, students at Hirsch Metropolitan High School on the South Side of Chicago held a walkout protesting a proposed charter school that would be sited at their building. Parents of students at the high school complained about a lack of community engagement from the proposed charter operator. The charter school eventually found a new, nearby location and promptly obtained $840,000 in grant money from the U.S. Department of Education.
We are lifelong advocates of high-quality public schools for all students, whether those schools are charters or traditional. Schools that aspire to serve our children and communities should embrace their accountability to the public. Schools are community institutions and should not seek to destabilize other institutions in our communities. One must wonder why those seeking to open charter schools are afraid of or resistant to this reasonable transparency and engagement proposal. The proposed rules would give more students access to high-quality schools, which is what we all—charter boosters and traditional public school champions—really want for America’s children.