3 Democrats Join Opposition to Ed Department’s Charter Schools Proposal

A student at Social Justice School, Washington, D.C. charter, raises his hand in class. With an almost 100% Black and Hispanic student population, the school is the type that would have a harder time winning approval under a proposed rule for the federal charter schools grant program. (Social Justice School)

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Three Senate Democrats have joined the Republicans who are raising alarm over the U.S. Department of Education’s plan to revamp the federal Charter Schools Program — a proposal that advocates say will cut off support for independent charters predominantly serving Black and Hispanic students.

The proposed rule would allow “federal reviewers to ignore state and local decisions to authorize new public charter schools,” Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Diane Feinstein of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey wrote in a May 5 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. 

Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Richard Burr of North Carolina also signed the letter. The proposed requirements, they wrote, “would make it difficult, if not impossible, for new public charter schools start-ups, and for high-performing public charter schools seeking to replicate or expand, to access [Charter Schools Program] funding.”

The $440 million competitive grant program, now almost 30 years old, supports schools’ start-up costs, from facility needs to staffing. Department officials say the revisions, which would require potential grantees to demonstrate “sufficient demand,” would encourage more racially balanced schools that don’t compete with traditional districts losing enrollment. Provisions would also require charters to be transparent about any contracts they have with for-profit organizations, which Democrats argue would increase accountability. But charter advocates argue the plan would make it harder for applicants to win approval, even if there’s demand from families. 

After backlash from the field and six Republicans in the Senate, the department last month extended the comment period on the rule for five days. Over 26,000 comments, both for and against the plan, have been submitted. 

Ranking Republicans on the House and Senate education committees have also threatened to repeal the rule if the administration doesn’t change it. They’ve asked the department to confirm by May 12 that it will submit the final rule to Congress for review.

In the recent letter, the senators said the proposal would “add significant burdens and time to an already complex application process, with little time for technical assistance, particularly for the upcoming 2022 grant cycle.”

Under the current schedule, the department is due to award grants to states by Sept. 30, which means the department has less than four months to finalize its rule, post the grant application and review submissions. New and expanding charter schools depend on the grant program because they don’t receive funding until after they begin serving students.

The senators want the department to allow charter operators to apply for the program under existing rules released in 2020.

“The time frame is definitely very tight, which is why it’s better to stick to the old rule this year,” said Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The Alliance is opposed to the department’s major revisions to the rule and argues it would hurt charters at a time when the sector has seen record growth. 

The department didn’t directly respond to the bipartisan letter, but said in a statement that the proposed rule is intended to “improve the quality and accountability of charter schools.”

Bennet, Feinstein and Booker advocate for funding for the Charter Schools Program every year, Rees said, but added it’s significant that they’re “expressing their views publicly.”

“We hope the department takes them seriously,” she said. “The three are not just any Democrats. They come from … states with a rich history of chartering.”

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