Education

Biden advisor notes incoming administration’s plan to neuter charter schools

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Last year, the Maine Legislature and Governor Janet Mills enacted a pair of bills curtailing the growth of the state’s public charter schools. Sponsored by Portland Rep. Mike Brennan, these changes to Maine law will severely limit the educational options available to Maine’s students.

In addition to previous limits on charter enrollment enacted in 2015, one bill capped the total number of charter schools allowed to operate in Maine at 10 schools. Rep. Brennan’s other bill specifically targeted Maine’s virtual charter schools, restricting all virtual charter enrollment to 1,000 total students across the entire state. That bill also prohibits virtual charters from expanding to serve new grade levels not provided for in their last renewed charter. 

These unnecessary restrictions give no option for Maine’s educational entrepreneurs to attempt alternatives to traditional schooling. Absent legislative action, innovation that has come to define charter and other alternative public schools will be permanently curtailed. At a time when students and parents are craving better schooling options, especially those which are remote, Rep. Brennan and Gov. Mills are on record for having worked against their interests.

On top of that, the incoming presidential administration in Washington D.C. will likely do all it can to limit opportunities for students and families to find their optimal educational environment.

In an Education Writers Association webinar held in late October, Stef Feldman, then-national policy director with Biden for President, was asked by organizers to provide a more detailed view of Biden’s stance on charter schools. Feldman said that it is the former Vice President’s position that private charter schools should not receive any federal dollars. 

She then expanded on that point to say that Biden would require nonprofit charter schools (including virtual schools) to be subject to the same regulation as traditional district schools. This would mandate charters’ adherence to state teachers’ union contracts, governance under local school boards and require them to implement standardized testing and curriculum requirements.

Implementing this aspect of Biden’s education platform could backfire for the incoming president’s administration. A recent memo by pollster Frank Luntz suggested that parents want more choice and better options for their children. Over 3-out-of-4 parents would like to see more vocational or work-based opportunities for their high-schoolers. The same proportion support “having education funding follow the student to whichever school they or their parent chooses.” 

A plurality of parents (42%) want education dollars to go directly to them, while only 1-in-4 would rather those funds go to educational institutions first. This shows that many parents see educational tax dollars not as property of the state, but a product of their labor, and rightfully so.

In response to Feldman’s comments, Corey DeAngelis, director of school choice at the Reason Foundation, shared a story earlier this year about the New York Board of Regents voting to close the top-performing Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, or BuffSci. Several regents expressed concern that, due to impending state budget cuts, traditional schools’ should be prioritized over charter schools.

Even though the school in question had performed better than all but four or five other schools in the district, the board still voted to deny its charter renewal. DeAngelis called it “an obvious conflict of interest,” noting that “the decision should be up to families” whether their school stays open or not.

Thankfully, the NY Regents reversed their decision to close BuffSci after overwhelming backlash from parents. While, ultimately, the board did the right thing, this type of conflict could plague Maine’s charter schools if they become targets for local school boards. As long as school board members see the success of charter schools as a direct threat to traditional, district schools, parents and students will suffer from limited options. 

The fact is, charter schools are public schools. Since they are chartered by the state, they are required to be available to all students. While they are subject to additional scrutiny regarding performance through the terms of their charters, they are allowed more flexibility than traditional public schools. This allows them to innovate and compete for staff and students in ways not expected of other public schools. If the Biden administration fully pursues this policy initiative, it could completely neuter charters across the nation, as well as the incentives to start one.

The raison d-etre of charter schools is to find better ways to provide the service of education and to empower community leaders to pursue alternative ways of running a public school. As the widespread closure of schools and adoption of hybrid learning systems has thrust thousands of Maine’s working parents into the position of being a homeschool teacher (in addition to a breadwinner), many are craving more bang for their buck. 

This dramatic shift in daily life for millions should prompt state legislators to champion reforms that encourage school adaptability, parental agency and student achievement, rather than closing doors of opportunity to struggling students and families.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around Maine.

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