Off the Charts.

            The regular public schools work OK for many people.  They don’t work for other students.  At least that’s the perception.  Many of the allegedly under-served students are Black or Hispanic.[1] 

            Republicans have long endorsed giving vouchers to families to spend on whichever school they prefer.  This approach sought to open taxpayer dollars to a market competition.  They anticipated that private schools would soak up much of the money in what amounted to a referendum on the public schools in any given constituency. 

            Thirty years ago, Democrats bent before the winds to avoid breaking.  They agreed to charter public schools.  Charter schools enjoy a degree of autonomy from the school district bureaucracy, but receive public funding.  Moreover, and here’s the rub, students have to apply and be accepted.  In effect, this allows the charter schools to cull out all the students who are undesirable for one reason or another.  Special-needs students get culled.  So do the unmotivated.  So do persistent discipline problems.  All this dross gets left behind in the regular public schools.  They are doomed. 

That is exactly the—often unspoken—motivation for parents who want to enroll their children in charter schools.  Some public schools (and some entire school districts) were in a downward spiral long before the charter school movement arose.  Students in charter schools, it is alleged, are freed from disorder and distraction.  Students in charter schools, it is alleged, can actually engage in learning.  Poor people who see education as a way out like charter schools. 

Charter schools have proved themselves popular.  Today, 3.6 million students attend 7,700 charter schools.  There are several million more students on waiting lists to get into charter schools.    Of these, better than two-thirds are from low-income households. 

The Obama Administration favored charter schools.  Hence, it came as a surprise when Joe Biden expressed reservations about charter school.[2]  Now the Biden Administration has proposed additional regulations for charter schools.  As justification, critics of charter schools point to a series of scandals involving some of the “for-profit” charter schools.  However, the “for-profits” account for 12 percent of the charter schools, while the new regulations will apply to all the charter schools (about one-half of the total) that receive federal funds. 

One requirement has drawn much fire from charter school supporters.  Teachers unions and school districts have resisted the growth of charter schools.  The regulation would accord priority in gaining grants from the federal Charter School Program to charters that partner with regular public schools.  This would allow the school district to brake the growth of the charter schools in their area.  Similarly, new schools would have to assess “unmet demand.”  That appeared to be defined in quantitative terms, rather than in terms of public school failure to educate.  The reaction against the regulations has been intense and bipartisan. 

[1] Erica L. Green, “Charter Rules Pushed by U.S. Spur Backlash,” NYT, 14 May 2022. 

[2] President Biden is best understood as a “time server.”  This old-timey expression means someone without any personal convictions who thinks that s/he must follow the prevailing spirit/beliefs of the time in which s/he lives.  Hence, Senator Biden was tough on crime in the Nineties and is appalled at mass incarceration today.  He supported opposition to mandatory bussing to integrate the schools and is now appalled to have it thrown in his face by Kamala Harris. 

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