New proposed federal regulations on charter schools are so ill-conceived that an unusually short public comment period couldn’t stave off near-universal condemnation, including harsh words from the editorial boards of both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. President Biden has finally achieved the type of bipartisanship that he promised would characterize his presidency, but it comes at a massive cost to American families.
The new regulations would mandate burdensome disclosure requirements for charter schools concerning their relationships with for-profit vendors. The law would not extend to traditional public schools, which also utilize for-profit vendors for a host of services including curriculum, food, and transportation.
Charter schools were conceived largely to provide greater autonomy from a public school system that was often bureaucratically constrained from undertaking meaningful improvement or innovation, and they have been an enormous success. Yet rather than allowing traditional public schools to learn from charter successes, the new regulations would burden charters with the red tape that necessitated their establishment in the first place.
Moreover, the law would mostly restrict new charters to settings that struggle with capacity in traditional public schools (i.e. settings where families apparently feel well-served by their local public school) and empower local public schools as charter gatekeepers. Fox, meet henhouse.
The proposed charter regulations have been widely panned because they are such a shameless and partisan gift to teacher unions, who flex enormous financial and political muscle to preserve their monopoly. Routinely lost in the current discussion, however, is recognition that even seemingly well-intentioned efforts to tighten regulation on charter schools have failed. In fact, if history is any guide, the new regulations will do little to help students and will impose the greatest cost on charters in historically underserved communities.
Consider, for example, the model charter law recommended by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), a highly influential purportedly pro-charter organization that advocates for expansive regulations that limit the power of parents and charter leaders and vests it into powerful bureaucrats. Among other things, NACSA recommends that charters should be shuttered if they don’t meet certain guarantees of performance, regardless of how enrolled families feel about the school. When coauthors and I studied the policy, we observed a disheartening yet unsurprising outcome: States that adopted the automatic closure mandate disparately shutter schools started by and serving African American students.
I along with coauthors found in other studies that NACSA policies erect disproportionate barriers to entry for would-be charter leaders of color, and hamper innovation within charter schools. Worst of all, perhaps, other researchers concluded that their model law is not associated with stronger student achievement.
Taken together, these studies indicate that stringent regulation hampers community control and empowers government bureaucrats, who fail to achieve success according to the metric that they themselves decided is the most important indicator of school quality.
The education marketplace, as it turns out, is not all that unique. It is best regulated by consumers, not the monopoly that it threatens nor bureaucrats who claim to know what’s best for other people’s children.