The result is something of a middle position, reflecting Biden’s ambivalence on the subject. Biden, like many centrist Democrats, was once a supporter of charter schools, but he changed his rhetoric on the issue as they fell out of favor with the liberal wing of the party. The teachers’ unions, which wield considerable influence over the party, are among the movement’s fiercest critics.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated enterprises. They were meant to serve as laboratories for innovation and provide alternatives for families unhappy with their local public schools. They were once seen as a popular middle ground in the school choice debate. But Democrats soured on them, and Republicans focused on private school choices, like taxpayer-funded vouchers and scholarships that allow children to attend parochial and private schools.
The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools was unhappy with several provisions of the proposal. “It’s unclear why the department and administration are trying to limit charter school opportunities,” spokeswoman Jennifer Diaz said.
The biggest proposed change would affect for-profit management companies that often run charter schools. To qualify for grants, charter schools must, by law, be operated by nonprofit groups. Many, however, contract out operation to for-profit companies, and these arrangements have been eligible for federal start-up money.
That would change. Nonprofit organizations could outsource particular tasks – such as payroll, for example – to for-profit companies. But arrangements in which for-profit companies handle the entire operation under contracts called “sweeps” would not qualify for start-up grants. The proposal specifically prohibits arrangements under which a for-profit management company “exercises full or substantial administrative control over the charter school…or over programmatic decisions.”
Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a supporter of charter schools, said new limits on for-profit deals were welcome. He denounced, for example, situations where the nonprofit board cannot fire the management company because the whole school would collapse. But he said the rules could end up being so sweeping that they lead to more independent arrangements that work well.
“It looks like an aggressive attempt to block schools run by for-profit companies from receiving these funds,” he said.
Carol Burris, a longtime charter school critic and executive director of the Network for Public Education, hailed the change as overdue but predicted limited impact.
“The for-profit operators who create these schools do not need this money to open schools. They will continue to open schools. They just won’t get any (federal) grants to do it.
About 10% of the approximately 7,500 charter schools are fully run by for-profit companies, according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. It was not clear how many of them use these “sweep” contracts.
The proposed requirements would also toughen the rules for nonprofit operators to qualify for the program.
Applicants must submit a community impact analysis demonstrating that there is “sufficient demand” for the new school and that the project would meet the needs of students and families in the community. They should also detail how the applicant would create racially and socio-economically diverse student and staff populations, although if this is not possible given the demographics of the community, applications may still be funded. .
To show “unmet demand,” applicants are asked to cite data on existing public schools that are over-enrolled.
It will be difficult for many candidates, Petrilli predicted, as registrations decline across the country.
“The language here about community impact and this notion that we shouldn’t be setting up charter schools in areas where enrollment is stable or declining is a brutal attack on charters. It would stop the charter movement in its tracks,” he said.
Burris noted that the proposal doesn’t say it will refuse to fund charters in areas with declining enrollment, just that it will be considered.
“And doesn’t that make sense from the taxpayer’s point of view?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you rather see a charter school in an area where it’s needed?” For the first time, the department asks the candidate to speak about the impact the new charter school will have on the community.
the notice of proposed requirements and the selection criteria for the charter school program grants were released last week. The proposal is open for public comment until April 14.