Charter schools have been praised as some of the heroes of the coronavirus pandemic, but don’t expect them to win any awards from Democratic governors or the Biden administration.
The publicly funded independent schools, which marked their 30th anniversary during National Charter Schools Week, face an increasingly hostile political climate as previously friendly Democrats line up with teachers’ unions calling for more accountability and less funding.
Ironically, the pivot on the left comes with charter schools enjoying an unprecedented surge in popularity over their ability to react nimbly and reopen safely during the pandemic, even without many of the must-haves demands by teachers’ unions.
“Catholic schools really set the example for how schools with less resources can open safely and successfully, and we’ve also seen this in the charter-school sector,” said Nate Benefield, vice president of the free-market Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Kevin P. Chavous, president of Stride K12, an online charter program, said his schools never missed a beat throughout the novel coronavirus shutdowns, and even helped train free of charge about 50,000 outside teachers in virtual education.
“The schools that we run were among the only public schools in America that did not lose a day of instruction time during the pandemic because we did have folks who were steeped in knowledge on how to execute effectively,” Mr. Chavous said Tuesday at a Center for Education Reform virtual event.
That success is reflected in surging enrollment. Jennifer Diaz, spokesperson for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, ticked off states that saw their student populations spike during the 2020-21 academic year, including South Carolina, which added 14,000 charter students.
In New York City, she said, about 10% of public school students now attend charters after adding 10,000 students, while San Diego County gained 4,600 students as school district classrooms lost 17,300.
“Charter schools were uniquely positioned to respond quickly to the learning challenges created by the pandemic,” said Ms. Diaz. “Charter schools were able to provide online learning options within just a few days of campus closures, ensuring that learning continued and students did not fall behind.”
JoAnn Mitchell, founder of Mission Achievement and Success Charter School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said her school increased its enrollment by 30%, the highest in the state for any nonvirtual school, after reopening as soon as the state allowed it on Sept. 8.
“It became optional on Sept. 8 for schools to come back, and across the state, [there were] very few,” said Ms. Mitchell. “We were one of only a dozen schools that returned in the entire state, but our families, we asked, ‘What do you want?’ That’s what they wanted.”
In Pennsylvania, charter-school attendance rose in the fall by 14%, or 24,000 students, with the vast majority signing up for cyber-schools, while school districts saw their enrollment drop by about 45,000, said Mr. Benefield.
“On the negative side, we’ve seen some pushback from our governor and some challenges from the administration,” Mr. Benefield said last month at a Center for Education Reform virtual event.
Indeed, the charter schools may have painted a target on their backs with their climbing attendance.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced in February an initiative to “fix our charter school law” by reworking the state funding formula, which would cut an estimated $229 million annually from charter programs while adding $1.8 billion to the school district budgets.
Mr. Wolf also dismissed in April the Pennsylvania Charter Appeals Board, according to Keystone Crossroads, which will prevent the board from approving charter schools rejected by their school districts.
Pushing back are Republican state legislators and charter proponents who contrasted the state’s school shutdowns during the pandemic with the success of the charter virtual academies.
“It’s ironic that almost 12 months into his school closures, Gov. Wolf is attacking the schools that actually continued to provide their students a quality education throughout the pandemic,” said Matt Brouillette, president of Commonwealth, in a Feb. 26 statement.
Other legislative battles are playing out in California, Colorado and Rhode Island in what Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, described as “a war on charter schooling” by Democrats in some areas.
“For three decades, leading Democrats have been willing to draw the line at charter schools, supporting them enthusiastically through the Clinton and Obama Administrations. But no longer,” Mr. Petrilli said in an email. “The Biden Administration and their allies in the states are putting their political interests over the needs of kids, even though the case for charter schools is stronger than ever, and even though charter schools have been working heroically to serve students during the crisis.”
The crackdown in California comes against the backdrop of a massive fraud case in San Diego County involving A3 Charter Schools, an online network that bilked the state for $400 million from 2016-19. The founders pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy charges in February.
California, which has 1,294 charter schools enrolling 675,000 pupils, the most in the nation, reacted with a two-year moratorium from 2020-22 on approval of new nonclassroom-based [NCB] charter schools.
Last year, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in 2019 to grant school districts the sole authority to approve or deny charter schools, removing the ability of rejected schools to appeal to the county or state.
In April, state Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell introduced legislation imposing new regulations on virtual charter schools, saying that “loopholes in state law have allowed these unscrupulous practices at NCB charter schools to continue unchecked.”
One sign was the 2020 Democratic National Convention platform, which said charter schools should be subject to greater transparency, accountability and “more stringent guardrails.”
Mr. Biden also has been critical of charters, calling during the campaign to ban federal funding for any charter schools, which are typically nonprofit, set up by for-profit corporations.
Shawn Hardnett, CEO and founder of Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys in Washington warned that the challenges for charter schools are getting greater despite their success.
As public schools struggled to reopen virtually after the shutdowns, he said, “the next day we were at 95% attendance online, shirts and ties, nobody missing, 100% of our staff there.”
“And people came in to watch, to literally to count, to make sure that all kids we were saying were there, were there,” Mr. Hardnett said.
His advice for those seeking to start charter schools: Run an excellent educational program, and stay engaged with the community and political leaders.
“This is not easy, and it is getting harder,” Mr. Hardnett said. “The environment within which you are doing this is significantly different and more difficult than the environment in which I have done it.”