The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Education Department’s ‘fix’ for charter schools is misguided

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4 min

Jared Polis, a Democrat, is the governor of Colorado.

As governor of Colorado, I’ve seen the enormous challenges faced by our students as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. During this time, the federal government has generally been a helpful partner to get and keep schools safely open by providing flexible funding with few administrative burdens.

So it’s confounding that the Education Department is about to create chaos and limit public school choice by instituting new rules that would gut the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) — a program that I helped update and greatly expand, with bipartisan support, during my time in Congress. The CSP supports the development and expansion of high-quality public charter schools and provides technical assistance and training where there is demand.

In Colorado, that demand is higher than ever. Public charter schools — tuition-free public schools that are granted site-based governance and flexibility in exchange for high accountability — are an important part of Colorado’s public school landscape. Today, about 15 percent of Colorado’s public school students attend a charter school.

This is in part because of how successful the charter schools have been, in Colorado and across the country. A recent national study from Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that between 2005 and 2017, students in the charter sector made greater academic gains than their district peers, with Hispanic and Asian students and students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile seeing nearly an additional half of years’ worth of learning. In Colorado, 7 of the top 10 rated public high schools in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings are charter schools.

Charter schools also lead the way in spurring innovative models of learning, such as the network of Colorado Early Colleges that provide students with pathways to debt-free college degrees and career credentials, and the Pikes Peak School of Expeditionary Learning in Falcon, Colo., that gives students access to project- and field-based learning opportunities as early as preschool.

Yet the Education Department has proposed rules that would halt innovation in its tracks and make it harder for communities to meet the educational needs of their students.

The rules would put major, sometimes unworkable barriers in the way of charter schools seeking CSP funding. For one, they would require a federal “community impact analysis,” giving anonymous grant reviewers in Washington the ability to veto parent, community, district and state efforts to open a new school. This second-guessing is absurd and flies in the face of common sense. Obviously a locally elected school board or other high-quality local authorizer is in the best position to weigh community support, not distant bureaucrats.

The community impact rules would also require schools to demonstrate their intent to have a culturally diverse student body and staff — a noble goal, but one that makes it difficult for schools that focus on an underrepresented population to get funding, especially when they are geographically isolated or serve indigenous populations. Consider Kwiyagat Community Academy, a public charter school in Towaoc, Colo. Founded last year by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, it teaches a new generation a culture and language infamously repressed by previous schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, under these new rules, the Education Department would disqualify a culturally-affirming school such as Kwiyagat from participating in the grant program, simply because of the mission of their school.

Another proposed regulation would require states to prioritize charter applicants that can find a school district to “partner” with them. This is ill-advised: A district could disadvantage a proposed charter school by refusing partnership — even though charters are often most needed in districts with a history of failed cooperation with new innovative models. The federal role should be to bring additional resources to serve students, especially in struggling schools and districts, and expand successful innovations.

The rules would also create numerous compliance, documentation and monitoring requirements that would make it difficult for under-resourced communities and single-site charter schools to apply for CSP grants — for example, requiring a new school to secure a facility before it can even receive funds for a planning phase. That seldom happens in real life, as landlords often look for both a charter and sufficient start-up funds before they agree to a lease and the planning phase often includes scouting locations.

This package of proposed regulations was developed with no stakeholder engagement from governors like me, superintendents or charter schools across the country who are invested in the program’s continued success. They would result in reduced quality choices for parents.

The Education Department should go back to the drawing board. The CSP is the only source of dedicated federal funding to support the growth of high-quality charter schools, and we must ensure the program can meet the clear demand for these life-transforming schools.