Under pressure from charter school advocates, the Biden administration on Wednesday said some of the tough new rules for federal funding are not as tough as they appear.
Still, the agency’s clarifications did not mention the biggest proposed change, which would bar for-profit management companies from contracting to run virtually all aspects of charter schools that are officially nonprofit.
“Our proposed priorities [for grants] are aimed at making sure students are delivered the highest quality education in excellent public charter schools,” the agency’s press secretary, Kelly Leon, said on Twitter.
The statement comes as hundreds of charter school parents and advocates arrived in Washington for a rally outside the White House on Wednesday, followed by lobby visits to Capitol Hill. In another sign of public interest, the proposed rules for the grant program have drawn more than 26,000 public comments, an unusually large response.
“They’re beating on charter schools and they just need to back off,” said Gregory Harrington, who lives near Austin, where his fifth-grade daughter attends Harmony School of Science, a charter program. He estimated about 180 other parents from Texas attended the rally with him.
“We don’t want them to shut our schools down,” said Malachi Armstrong, whose 6-year-old daughter attends the West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School. He said he worries about the fate of his school, though the funding at issue is for start-up expenses in new schools, not ongoing operations.
He added that the school encouraged students and parents to travel to D.C. for the rally as a field trip. Others said their flights were paid by charter school advocacy groups.
A group of parents spoke outside the Education Department on Wednesday morning before rallying across the street from the White House later that morning.
The notice of proposed requirements and selection criteria for the Charter Schools Program grants was published in March. Final rules are expected in the coming months.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run enterprises. They are meant to serve as laboratories of innovation as well as provide alternatives for families unhappy with their local public schools. They were once seen as a popular middle ground in the school-choice debate between those who want to exclusively fund traditional public schools and those who want a fuller set of options, including private school vouchers.
Some Democrats have soured on charters, though President Biden has proved more ambivalent. As a candidate, he pledged to eliminate federal funding to support for-profit charter schools but said he supported high-quality nonprofit charters.
Last year, he asked for and received $440 million for the charter school program, keeping level funding for this year. Grants are typically about $500,000 per new school, and they have benefited about half of the existing charter schools.
But the Education Department also published tougher rules to qualify for those grants.
For instance, the proposal requires applicants to 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. To show “unmet demand,” applicants are asked to cite data about overenrolled existing public schools.
Some charter school advocates worry the federal government would deny funding to charters in places where traditional schools have open seats, which is often the case given falling enrollments all over the country.
On Twitter, the agency said proposed charters could also show demand by showing there are wait lists for existing charter schools or “a desire for different approaches than what traditional public schools offer.”
It also said that while the agency is encouraging charter schools to collaborate with traditional public schools, it is not a requirement.
And it made clear that a requirement that applicants detail how they would create racially and socioeconomically diverse student and staff populations does not mean diversity itself is a requirement. If the community is not racially diverse to start with, it said, homogenous charters would still be eligible.
“This proposal only seeks to prevent further segregating schools,” the agency said.
Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Charter Schools, said she still worries that the language included in the proposal could be open to interpretation by grant reviewers and said all new charter schools should qualify for the funding. Still, she said, “We’re grateful they are finally noticing there are a lot people with concerns.”
The biggest proposed change would affect the for-profit management companies that often run charter schools. To qualify for grants, charter schools must, by law, be run by nonprofit groups. Many, however, outsource the operation to for-profit companies, and those arrangements have been eligible for the federal start-up money.
Under the proposal, nonprofits could outsource particular tasks — payroll, for instance — to for-profit companies. But those companies couldn’t run the entire operation under contracts known as “sweeps” and still be eligible for the start-up grants.
About 10 percent of approximately 7,500 charter schools are fully managed by for-profit companies, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. It was not clear how many of them use these “sweeps” contracts.