National charter school advocacy organizations feigned shock and horror when the Biden administration proposed new regulations that would strangle growth and innovation in the charter sector.
But groups such as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools should not have been surprised at all. After all, Biden's action closely mirrored the regulatory approach these groups have been pursuing in the states. If advocacy organizations really want to reinvigorate the charter movement, they should consistently emphasize that school quality comes from empowering parents rather than from top-down regulations, whether those regulations are issued by state or federal governments.
NACSA and NAPCS, the two main national advocates for charter schools, have taken the position that parents cannot be trusted to choose the right charter options. Instead, they prefer a system in which state regulators limit what charter schools can open, closely monitor and regulate their operations, and promptly close those that fail to satisfy regulators' preferences—even if parents still want to send their children to those schools. This approach had proven disastrous, even before the Biden administration proposed its additional regulations.
Alabama, for example, has managed to open only four charter schools since passing its charter law in 2015. Yet both NACSA and NAPCS praise Alabama’s regulations, ranking its charter laws among the best five in the country. Both groups also laud Mississippi’s charter regulations, even though that state has opened only six charters since 2013. Between 2006 and 2012, national charter enrollment nearly doubled. In the most recent four years, however, enrollment has increased by only 10%. NACSA and NAPCS can’t complain that Biden’s proposed regulations will grind the expansion of charter schools to a halt, as they have already pretty effectively accomplished the same through their preferred state regulations.
In a recent study that I conducted with Ian Kingsbury and Corey DeAngelis, we found that states rated more highly by NACSA had less innovative charter sectors with fewer alternative approaches. The heavy state regulation favored by NACSA also reduces the racial diversity of charter school operators. As Ian Kingsbury and Bob Maranto have shown , NACSA’s preferred state regulations are more likely to block minority applicants from opening charter schools and more likely to result in the closure of charter schools operated by black and Hispanic school leaders.
Keeping minority leaders from operating charter schools has undermined political support for charters in those communities. Ironically, reduced political support among black and Hispanic leaders facilitated Biden’s proposed regulations, as he now faces little organized resistance from minority members of Congress.
NACSA and NAPCS claim they favor heavy regulatory approaches to ensure school quality, but there is no evidence to support the claim that their preferred regulations improve student outcomes. Insisting that the key to ensuring quality is regulation, rather than an open market in which parents can choose from a variety of school options, opened the door to the Biden administration’s claim that its regulations were also required to protect quality.
School quality is strengthened by empowering parents to leave schools that fail to serve their children's needs. By taking the opposite approach, the national advocacy groups have created a Frankenstein’s monster. Now, the federal government wishes to ape their approach, and they are in no position to object.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner