(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Among the few encouraging trends in American education during the pandemic has been the growth of public charter schools. While public schools overall have seen the biggest enrollment drop in decades, the number of students attending charter schools rose by 7%. The message seems simple: Fed up with underperforming public schools, parents are voting with their feet.
Unfortunately, President Joe Biden’s administration appears intent on ignoring this warning sign — and pandering to teachers’ unions and school-district administrators instead.
Despite educating 7% of all public-school students, charter schools account for less than 1% of total federal spending on K-12 education. In its recently passed spending bill, Congress appropriated $440 million for the federal charter-school program — the same level it’s been for the past four years, during which time charter-school enrollment increased by 13%.
The Biden administration may well worsen this disparity. The Department of Education recently proposed rules that would require charter-school operators to conduct a “community impact analysis” before qualifying for federal funds. Charters would be eligible only if they could prove they’re operating in communities where there is “unmet demand,” meaning that existing public schools are over-enrolled and can’t accommodate all the students in the community.
In other words, charter-school operators would be barred from receiving federal support if they opened in areas seeing declining public-school enrollment — the very communities where, after two years of disrupted learning, dissatisfaction with public schools is boiling over. In effect, the Biden plan would discourage charters from opening in low-income districts where students are most in need of better options. It could result in tens of millions of congressionally mandated dollars going unspent.
It’s a flagrantly wrongheaded policy. But it happens to reflect the views of powerful teachers’ unions, who falsely argue that charters drain money from underfunded (and unionized) public schools. In fact, the evidence suggests that charters help to improve existing public schools. The presence of high-quality competition both lifts academic achievement in nearby schools and drives increases in overall per-pupil public spending. Contrary to the claims of their opponents, moreover, charter schools overwhelmingly benefit Black, Latino and low-income students.
At a minimum, the administration should scrap the requirement that charter schools demonstrate “unmet demand” based on enrollment at traditional schools to receive federal funds. If the government wants to determine whether there’s sufficient demand for new charter schools in a given community, it should instead look at wait lists for existing charters and the availability of seats at high-quality neighborhood schools — not underperforming ones. In allocating federal dollars for charters, priority should be given to charter-school networks with a demonstrated record in underserved areas and in raising achievement among poor and minority students.
Charter schools can’t fix all of the problems facing the U.S. public-education system, but they’re a lifeline for millions of students trapped in failing schools or at risk of dropping out — kids who could face a lifetime of lower wages, higher unemployment, reduced life expectancy and a greater likelihood of ending up in jail. Biden should show he’s on their side.
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The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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