End the Federal Attack on Charter Schools

End the Federal Attack on Charter Schools

With this year’s midterms looming and control of Congress hanging in the balance, Republicans are making inroads with voters by focusing on education, portraying Democrats as out of touch with the concerns of parents and captive to teachers unions.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education risks playing into their hands with a proposal to restrict funding for public charter schools that’s bad politics and even worse policy. It’s critical that the White House intervene before it’s too late.

The proposed rules would impose a series of burdensome and potentially crippling new restrictions on federal funding for educators working to create new charters and expand existing ones. The draft rule would reverse the progress of the $440 million federal charter-school program — championed by President Barack Obama — that helped so many children and educators succeed. This is especially disturbing given the impressive track record of urban charter schools in low-income communities.       

This would be a terrible mistake that couldn’t come at a worse time. Due to unnecessarily extended school closures and inadequate remote instruction, students across the country have fallen behind on average five months in math and four in English. The learning loss has been even worse for students who were already too far behind, especially low-income Black and Latino students. 

This is an emergency that requires urgent action, and creating additional high-quality charter schools is a critically important piece of an effective response. Data shows that students in urban charter schools are outperforming their peers in district schools, with Black students and low-income students — who are the majority of charter students — seeing the biggest benefits. High-performing charter schools are reducing or eliminating the racial-achievement gap, and many are even outperforming peers in the wealthiest suburbs. It’s no surprise that polls show strong support for expanding charter schools, especially among Black and Latino voters.

Educational initiatives that work should be expanded, not reversed. However, the result of the Department of Education’s draft rule — if finalized as written — would be to severely limit opportunities for families to choose new public charter schools. And it would force more students into failing schools where enrollment is declining.

The draft rule would do this, in part, by requiring educators and communities to essentially prove that local public schools are over-enrolled, regardless of whether those schools are failing, or whether parents and children are demanding other options. It’s akin to the federal government refusing to fund affordable housing in communities with dilapidated and derelict apartment buildings, simply because vacancies exist in those buildings. Children should not be shoved into failing schools any more than people should be shoved into unsafe housing.

The federal term for low enrollment in public schools is “unmet need.” If the Department of Education cannot see the overwhelming unmet need for high-quality schools in communities across the country, it should look at the long waiting lists that exist at many charters. Or it should just listen to parents.

During the first year of the pandemic, charter-school enrollment rose by 7% — around 240,000 new students — while enrollment in traditional district schools fell. The message couldn’t be clearer: Parents want better options for their kids. There simply isn’t enough supply to meet demand — and the new regulations will worsen the imbalance.

Despite the growing support for charters and their record of achievement, federal support for charter schools is far behind where it should be. The spending bill that recently passed Congress kept funding for charter schools at basically the same level it has been for four years — even though, over that period, charter-school enrollment has increased by 13%.

While there are some positive provisions in the proposed rule — such as essentially prohibiting for-profit entities from controlling local charter schools and ensuring involvement of educators in the design of new schools — the overall effect would be a devastating setback for families and children.

By giving parents and students more choices, charter schools help to raise levels of accountability and academic achievement across public school districts. We saw that in New York City, where our administration opened 654 new schools, including 173 new charter schools, from 2002 to 2013. That helped drive graduation rates up 42%, to record highs, and helped to cut the racial-achievement gap by a quarter.

Our administration was fortunate to have strong partners in Washington. During his time in office, President Obama significantly expanded federal support for charter schools across the country. The Department of Education now risks reversing that legacy, and Black and Latino students would suffer the most severe harms.

If the proposed rules are adopted, Democrats are likely to pay a painful political price in November. But the biggest costs will be borne by so many young Americans who will be robbed of the chance to attend the high-quality schools they deserve — and receive an education that prepares them for success in college and careers. That would be a tragedy, and the administration should move swiftly to prevent it from happening.

Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions.

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