The U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to cut $40 million from the federal Charter Schools Program, in a major policy shift away from the bipartisan support that charter schools have enjoyed in recent years.
In addition to the funding cut, the move would prohibit federal funding for charter schools that contract “with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school,” a move that would hamstring the ability of many charters to operate.
The legislation — House Resolution 4502 — has drawn sharp criticism from charter school advocates, who say Congress is seeking to kneecap charters even as demand for educational alternatives spikes across the nation.
“The goal of this legislation is to affirm Democratic Party allegiance to teacher unions, which have declared war on school choice generally and charter schools specifically,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.
A recent editorial by The Wall Street Journal pointed out that federal education funding has spiked 40% — to $102.8 billion — during the pandemic. President Biden’s original budget proposal held funding for the federal Charter Schools Program steady at $440 million in total, but H.R. 4502 reduces that amount by 10%.
Above and beyond the budget cut, charter school advocates say the language that bars charters from contracting with for-profit entities is problematic.
“The imprecise and sweeping language in this bill has potentially far-reaching impacts for public charter schools,” said Lindalyn Kakadelis, executive director of the N.C. Coalition for Charter Schools. “It threatens the loss of all federal funding for charter schools that contract with a for-profit company to ‘operate, oversee or manage’ school activities, with zero clarification about what those activities might be. If the bill passes with this language intact, it could jeopardize the operational viability of public charter schools nationwide — and the public school students educated by those schools.”
Stoops said traditional public schools also contract with for-profit entities for services, so singling out charters in the legislation is unfair.
“Every school bus, computer, mop, light bulb, and ream of paper purchased by a school official comes from a for-profit enterprise,” Stoops said. “If H.R. 4502 becomes law, then federal funds could be withheld from a charter school that contracts with a business to procure these and the thousands of items that make a school operational.”
Republicans in the U.S. House are mounting an effort to defend charters. N.C. Reps. Patrick McHenry, R-10th, and Madison Cawthorn, R-11th, have signed on to an amendment that would eliminate the funding cut and the new regulations, but the Democrats’ slim majority in the House means the amendment is doomed if the vote falls on strictly partisan lines.
The budget cut would come as demand for charter schools is at an all-time high in North Carolina. While traditional public schools experienced a 5% drop in enrollment during the pandemic, charter school enrollments leaped by 7.7%. Private schools saw a more modest increase of 3.3% in enrollments, while the rate of homeschooling jumped far ahead of the pack at an unprecedented 20.6%.
According to the national school-choice advocacy organization ExcelinEd, 68.7% of charter school students are minorities and an estimated 1.2 million of the 3.3 million charter students are at or below the federal poverty level. Another 300,000 students have special needs or a disability.
If successful in the House, the blow to charter schools would telegraph a possible shift leftward among Democrats in opposing charters. Recent administrations of both parties — including the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations — have supported charter schools, but Biden has taken a sterner stone against them.
H.R. 4502 is pending in the U.S. House Rules Committee.