Parents demand school choice
Daniel Huizinga | But the Biden administration protects the status quo with its new charter school rules
Hundreds of Washington, D.C., parents protested the Biden administration’s new charter school rules this week, a sign of surging support for school choice after the catastrophic policies of school closures and arbitrary COVID-19 restrictions for children. New polls consistently show that more than three-quarters of Americans from each political party and racial group support more opportunities to choose where to send their kids to school. But instead of embracing this opportunity for charter schools to help reverse stagnant educational outcomes, the Biden administration is trying to pass new regulations that ensure fewer families will have access to school choice.
Despite President Joe Biden’s constant focus on “promoting competition in the American economy,” new rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Education instead try to protect the status quo. Under these regulations, any new charter school that wishes to receive federal funding “must propose to collaborate with at least one traditional public school or traditional school district.” (Of course, nothing in the rules says that traditional public schools have to agree.)
New schools must also submit a detailed “community impact analysis” that describes why the charter school is needed, including providing data on “over-enrollment” at surrounding traditional public schools. Though at first glance this sounds straightforward, giving power to the federal government to determine when a new school is needed in a community will end up reinforcing the existing school structure. This deprives disadvantaged students of better opportunities. “In many cases, inner-city charter-school students are outperforming their peers in the wealthiest and whitest suburban school districts in the country,” argues economist Thomas Sowell in his book Charter Schools and Their Enemies. But no one hates competition more than existing providers—even if competition improves outcomes—and they will lobby heavily to prevent new entrants.
This is similar to a long-standing problem with many states’ healthcare systems, where “certificate of need” laws require new healthcare providers to convince state regulators that there is sufficient need for their services before they can operate. Large, existing healthcare providers spend months lobbying to prevent competition, and research shows that these laws increase costs and reduce the supply of healthcare resources. Why should we expect a different outcome for education?
Partly due to this influence in government funding, traditional public schools have succeeded in eliminating or preventing many competitors. Though public charter schools are not currently allowed to teach religion, there is also an ongoing legal debate about whether religious organizations should be allowed to operate charter schools—and in doing so, access more government funding than if they were private. This issue may be a “matter of life and death” for some religious schools, according to Nicole Stelle Garnett, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute: “Over the past several decades, even as the footprint of private school choice has expanded, thousands of faith-based schools have closed, with the losses concentrated especially among Catholic schools serving disadvantaged children in states without parental choice.”
As expected, the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the United States, applauded the Biden administration’s new rules that protect its monopoly on public education. The union even suggested the rules should go further to “reward” new schools that “pledge to support their workers’ right to organize.” The union has a history of prioritizing its own goals over parents’ preferences, pushing to keep schools closed for most of the 2020-21 school year despite massive consequences for children’s learning and mental health. AFT President Randi Weingarten even claimed recently that parents-rights bills like the one that stirred up so much controversy in Florida are the ways that “wars start.” Unsurprisingly, 99.6 percent of the union’s political donations last year went to Democrats, and union leaders expect protection for it.
However, even some Democratic senators argue the new federal rules do “not prioritize the needs of students.” The left-leaning Center for American Progress agrees that “high-quality charter schools have been a critical strategy to increase opportunity and create more good seats for students.” Defining which schools are “high-quality” is the key challenge, but the federal government should be careful before using its regulatory power to make this assessment. Parents are much better able to assess community needs and evaluate educational opportunities for their children, and they’re also less susceptible to political influence.
Rather than fighting to exclude parents from school decisions or comparing them to “domestic terrorists,” it’s time we start recognizing the critical role of parental involvement in student success. Most parents across the country are asking for more choices in educating their children—it’s time the Biden administration started listening and stopped serving the interests of the public school bureaucrats and teachers unions.
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