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Students leave the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, MA on May 12, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Federal Spending on Charter Schools Needs Reform

The changes would help make sure that for-profit organizations no longer receive grant money to manage charter schools.

Jeremy Mohler

With conflicts raging over masks, books, and curriculums in the nation's public schools, you'd be forgiven for missing a noteworthy new proposal from the U.S. Department of Education.

Each year, the program awards nearly $500 million to open or expand charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated with little to no public oversight.

For the first time since the federal Charter Schools Program was established in 1994, the department is improving its rules for grant applicants. Each year, the program awards nearly $500 million to open or expand charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated with little to no public oversight. The rule changes are long overdue. Much has shifted in nearly three decades, with charter schools now in 43 states, enrolling over 7 percentof all public school students.

Yet, some charter school advocates are fighting the new rules, calling them "sabotage" and those who support the changes "bureaucratic gremlins" who have gone "woke." Their opposition centers on the rules allegedly discouraging charter schools from applying for grants and burdening charter school operators with more paperwork.

Here's why they're wrong, and why the new rules are common sense.

The changes would help make sure that for-profit organizations no longer receive grant money to manage charter schools. Currently, the program's rules aren't strong enough to keep for-profit management companies from hiding behind nonprofit front organizations and pocketing federal dollars meant for educating students. More than 440 charter schools managed by for-profit companies received Charter Schools Program grants totaling approximately $158 million between 2006 and 2017.

The new rules would also require applicants to provide an analysis of the proposed charter school's impact on the surrounding community. Primarily, applicants would need to show that a new or expanded charter school does not exceed the number of public schools needed in the area. The burden of too many schools is carried by students and parents when schools are forced to close due to low enrollment. This is especially so for charter schools, which experience relatively high turnover. More than one in four parents who enroll their kindergartners into a new charter school will have to find another school by the time their children reach the fifth grade. School closures exacerbate already existing disparities within the education system but also in other aspects of students' lives.

The department is also attempting to address the grant program's contribution to resegregation caused by charter schools. Applicants would need to show how their new or expanded school wouldn't hinder desegregation efforts in the school districts from which their students would be drawn. In some states, most notably North Carolina, charter schools have become magnets for white families to unenroll their children from integrated public schools. Other charter schools actively attempt to attract high-achieving students while discouraging students with special needs from attending.

Why would anyone who cares about public school students—in both traditional and charter schools—disagree with these changes? Why would they want less oversight when it comes to how federal dollars are spent? Why would they want less attention paid to whether there are too many schools, increasing the risk of closures? Why would they want communities to have less say over the schools available to them?

The nation's public school students deserve more. More care and attention. More resources. More support from public institutions. Not less. The Education Department needs to hear this loud and clear.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeremy Mohler

Jeremy Mohler

Jeremy Mohler is communications director of In the Public Interest, a nonprofit organization that studies public goods and services. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, The Guardian, Jacobin, The American Prospect, El Nuevo Día, and other outlets.

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