The Biden Administration just released new rules for applicants to the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), which is supposed to help public charters with start-up expenses such as technology and staff. These new rules, some buried within the 14,000+-page document, privilege large urban school districts over families by making one of the criteria for eligibility to CSP’s $440 million package whether the traditional district has enough seats in district schools to serve students. Now charters seeking federal aid will have to demonstrate “unmet demand.”
What is “unmet demand”?
It’s not long waiting lists or school quality or student outcomes. It’s not culturally-affirming practices or parent autonomy or educational equity for those without the resources to move to a better district or pay for private schools. Instead, charters are only eligible for federal aid if they provide “evidence that demonstrates that the number of charter schools proposed to be opened, replicated or expanded…does not exceed the number of public schools needed to accommodate the demand in the community.”
Example: In Newark, NJ, Malcolm X Shabazz High School’s enrollment has dropped (according to most recent Education Department data) by 120 students in two years. For sure there are empty seats at Shabazz, especially since parents are afraid to enroll their children. But maybe kids do fine there. Let’s check: Nine out of ten students fail reading proficiency tests; 3%.of students are proficient in math. Shabazz is ranked #2192 out of NJ’s 2221 public schools.
But, hey, it’s got empty seats so no more federal aid for charters in Newark.
The folks who wrote these new rules should have spoken to parents who depend on public charters for a pathway out of unsafe, low-quality district schools, parents like Dana Madison.
Madison grew up in Jersey City, the state’s second largest district. As a child she was zoned for PS 14, the Ollie Culbreth School, where currently one out of five students meet state expectations in reading and one out of ten meet expectations in math. With few resources her mother still managed to pay for private school for a few years before Madison got into the district’s most selective magnet school, Dr. Ronald E. McNair High School, the fifth highest-performing public school in the state and 73d highest-performing in America.
Now Madison lives in Newark with her two children and is unapologetic about her high standards (a sharp contrast with Superintendent Roger León who celebrated when 4 out of 5 students flunked the state math test). When it was time for her son to start school she went to visit the district schools in her part of the city and didn’t like what she saw. After ruling out private and parochial schools due to finances, she started exploring public charters and decided to try her luck in the lottery at North Star Academy, part of the Uncommon Schools charter network.
The Madisons got lucky: her son got in the first time—many parents wait years to win the lottery—and her daughter, younger by two years, had the advantage of sibling preference. They both started North Star in kindergarten and are now in the network’s high school where they excel in their studies.
I asked Madison what she thought about the new rules issued by the Biden Administration. Here’s what she had to say:
I think they do an extreme injustice to our Black and Brown students. How can they limit the only free option that is high-quality for so many families? The district schools are not meeting the standards I set for my children’s education. Also, district schools have become very dangerous.
My children and all children have the right to receive a great education! It’s not a privilege. It’s not something you should have to fight for. It should be a given! How can the Biden Administration put these limits on charters when the real issue is the district schools are failing? I think the focus should be on bringing all schools up to a high level, not shutting down the ones that are actually succeeding.
Karega Rausch, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, concurs. He said that the new rules will punish charter applicants in school districts with shrinking enrollment, which includes many big cities, “Demand for charter schools isn’t just about demand for the availability of any seat but the demand for a high-quality seat. That’s why charters have waiting lists in cities with empty public-school buildings.”
Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, sees a “troubling pattern” and says this “back-door attempt to prevent new charter schools from opening runs counter to the very purpose of the CSP.”
Kristy Wolfe, Senior Vice President for Policy, Research and Planning at NAPCS, writes,
[T]here is no consideration of whether there are enough seats in high quality schools to serve the most underserved students. Nor is the possibility even considered that a charter could boost the outcomes of district schools, as multiple studies have found to be the case. It treats district enrollment and demographics as the gold standard, when in fact many are vestiges of red-lining and other attempts to restrict access to higher quality schools. In many places, charter schools are how students whose educational needs are not being met by the district get access to a high-quality education.
Dana Madison’s sentiments exactly.
There’s been a fair amount of chatter that the new rules are a sop to teacher union leaders. The Wall Street Journal editorializes, “the Biden Administration is deep in the tank for the teachers unions, and it is proving it again by imposing new rules to sabotage a modest $440 million grant program for charter schools.” The Washington Post notes that Biden has “shifted his rhetoric” as the Democrats’ “liberal wing” has turned on charters (despite strong support from former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) because “teacher unions… hold significant sway in the party, [and] are among the movement’s fiercest critics.” Robert Maranto cites the atypically short period for public comment–just thirty days–and says,, “for charter opponents, the fix is in, with devils in the details.”
Perhaps Pres. Biden is taking cues from New Jersey where Gov. Murphy is deep in the tank with the state teachers union, NJEA. Here, a group of charter opponents are in court claiming that charters increase segregation, even though the bulk of NJ charters are in cities where the population is almost entirely Black or Brown. In Newark in particular, explains Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger Editorial Board, the two largest charter networks there, TEAM Academy and North Star (where Madison’s children are enrolled) “both came to Newark to promote racial justice by bringing good schools into segregated Black areas where school failures were most dramatic.”
Ryan Hill, who founded the first TEAM school, part of the KIPP network, puzzles, “They’re trying to help Black and brown families who are underserved, and the solution is to yank them out of the schools they’ve chosen to enroll their kids and force them to go to a school they’ve actively avoided. I don’t get it.”
Neither does Dana Madison.