Federal lifeline for millions on the chopping block.
In May, advocates celebrated National Charter Schools Week. Launched in 2000 by a diverse group of individuals and organizations working across the nation to advance the idea of innovative and independent public schools, it enjoyed the support of the most powerful man in the world, President Bill Clinton, who spoke glowingly of the movement to improve public schools since its inception in 1991 in Minnesota.
Clinton’s national proclamation made the critical point that, “charter schools are driving change in public schools across America by showing the benefits of greater parent participation, longer school years, higher academic standards, and character education. Charter schools offer reform, innovation, and increased choice in public education, and, by doing so, they spur improvement throughout our public school system,” he famously said.
The Congressional Salute to Charter Schools that my organization launched that same year featured celebrations on Capitol Hill and a bi-partisan congressional bus tour of Washington, DC charter schools. Back in the states, Governors of both parties rallied their constituencies, and every year since, every President, all Congressional leaders, and the states themselves issue their own proclamations, visit schools and make awards to start-up schools, made possible by the widely-supported Public Charter School Grant program created in 1997 to reward, incentivize and expand charters, which were then and still remain inequitably funded, with fewer than 75 percent of the dollars other public schools receive.
Such inequitable treatment is a factor of misguided policy makers buying into the rhetoric of the usual suspects — e.g. unions, school boards associations, pre-innovation-era school administrators — who felt threatened by these new innovative schools seemingly cutting into their “territory” and claiming they took “their” money. Despite that, the period of time surrounding the inception of the new celebratory week was vibrant. Legislative activity was fast and furious. Between 1991 and 2000 alone, 36 laws were enacted governing the creation of new charter schools. The opponents simply couldn’t keep up.
The media were active reporters, too, and were fascinated by the bevy of teachers, parents and community leaders across diverse swatches of America that together embraced charter schools. Urban and suburban, all manner of teachers, parents and students alike engaged in some aspect of advancing charter schooling. It was a beautiful tapestry, as many have written over the years. And it was one of the most catalytic times for American education in history.
Man, have things changed.
The Biden Administration has been working overtime — with at least a dozen former teachers’ union staffers at the highest levels of the Department of Education — to kill charter schools, starting with proposing regulations to the federal program, to starve charter schools and discourage their creation and expansion. Over 26,000 comments about the rules, mostly negative, were submitted to the Department. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who once commented on his support for charters, doubled down on his opposition when criticized, claiming the rules actually are designed to help charter schools. Really poor talking points, Mr. Secretary. Congressional Democrats like Corey Booker and Michael Bennet, and Republicans like Tim Scott and Bill Cassidy have argued the regulations would reduce great options for kids.
An astute observer might ask why this Administration, the first in history to oppose charter schools since their inception, has a misplaced focus on undermining parental options that largely help underserved students, those whose educational losses have been most exacerbated by ineffective public education systems during Covid. Indeed a new bombshell report released by the New York Times this week shows that students suffered more than 50 percent learning loss in the past year. The loss was most acute in cities that are dominated by teachers’ unions, the very organization that is counseling the White House to stretch beyond its constitutional power to counter state and local charter school policies. “Hundreds of districts kept schools closed for a year or more,” said the Times. “Many of these schools are in major cities, which tend to be run by Democratic officials, and Republicans were generally quicker to reopen schools. High-poverty schools are also more likely to have unionized teachers, and some unions lobbied for remote schooling.”
And let’s be clear — their version of remote learning was not the proven, online, interactive and quality virtual education that connects students seamlessly with teachers and quality instruction throughout the whole day, which successful charters from New York to Colorado employed with great success by the students. The union-approved version of remote learning was turning on a computer and “doing” — without more than an hour or two of teacher support — a few assignments throughout a week!
Why isn’t the White House focussed on stemming the tide of the learning loss, and ensuring that the $190 billion it pushed for schools to receive is actually spent on quality instruction, great teaching and above all, getting students the education they need?
It’s a political question most charter school principals, teachers and parents are asking themselves as they begin their nationwide celebrations around a concept that has been life-saving for millions of students and their teachers. Why not fund demonstrable success, particularly when it concerns educating the next generation, the majority of whom will tell you they would have left public education had it not been for charter schools?
So as thousands of organizations hit the “air” with their Tweets and Facebook posts documenting their week long efforts to show the public and politicians why education opportunity is and should be embraced as a civil right, while millions of students show up to schools that are not only more likely to be safe but more likely to give them a successful path to college and career, we can only hope — and pray — that somewhere down deep inside the souls of Biden Administration officials there is a change of heart that allows them to want to put the interests of children above their own.