Lawmakers and education secretary clash over charter school rules

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona defended the Biden administration’s position on a range of education issues during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday, including tightening regulations on the federal funding for charter schools, reviewing pandemic relief aid spending, and expanding the Title I aid program for high-needs students.

Cardona appeared on Capitol Hill to support President Biden’s recently released $88 billion federal budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Education, which includes substantial increases in funding for schools in need, mental health support for college students, and students with disabilities.

But the proposed new regulations for charter schools have attracted more attention from lawmakers than any of these initiatives.

The Biden administration last month announced proposed regulations this would require charter schools seeking federal funding to demonstrate widespread community interest in the program using a survey and data showing over-enrollment at local public schools.

The proposal would also require private charter providers to partner with at least one local public school district to develop curriculum, professional development opportunities, behavioral interventions or practices to help struggling students. For-profit operators would be excluded from the federal grant program, which totals $440 million in Biden’s proposed education budget.

That question sparked the closest thing to fireworks in a cordial audience that was largely tension-free — a far cry from the bickering when Cardona’s predecessor, Betsy DeVos, appeared before Congress.and heated debates with Cardona last year about history programs and in-person learning.

Cardona said Thursday the department wants to prevent charter schools from opening in low-demand locations, only to close a year or two later and leave students stranded. Citing examples of charter schools he strongly supports, he dismissed accusations that the administration wants to suppress charter education as “misinformation” and “myths.”

“I think the proposals are reasonable, and what they are asking for is greater accountability, transparency and fiscal responsibility,” he said.

Earlier this month, eighteen Republican governors urged the Biden administration against the implementation of these changes. Advocates like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools also oppose it..

Critics of the proposed regulations say they would give too much power to the federal government and the districts veto charter concepts they don’t like; prevent charter schools from opening in high-need areas where districts are facing declining enrollment; and squeeze the capacity of private providers offer families an alternative to public schools.

During Thursday’s hearing, several Republican lawmakers argued that the proposed policies would limit innovation and impose an unfair administrative burden on future charter operators.

“You may be an advocate for high-quality charter schools, I take you at your word on that,” U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., told Cardona. “But what you’re doing with this new rule is discouraging people from taking the risk of getting started.”

Moolenaar and Rep. Tim Cole, R-Okla., urged Cardona to extend the public comment period on proposed rule changes and suspend implementation of any changes until the end of the current fiscal year. . But Cardona said the department has already begun reviewing the feedback it received.

From “culture wars” to budget details

The hearing also touched on contentious fights over Republican efforts at the state level to stigmatize classroom discussions about race. and sexuality.

Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., Asked Cardona how the federal government would fight these new laws, including in her home state of Florida, where a district recently canceled a workshop on the civil rights movement , fearing a backlash, she said.

Cardona said the civil rights office will investigate cases where student rights appear to be violated. Schools should not be drawn into “culture wars“, he said.

“It’s really important as an educator and as a father that our students are proactively engaged and introduced to the beautiful diversity that has made this country the most amazing experience in the world,” he said. declared. “That includes our history, even parts that we’re not proud of.”

Some other highlights from the hearing:

  • Rep. Rose DeLauro, D-Conn., chair of the committee, said she would hold a separate hearing on the issue of the teacher shortage, which has drawn increased attention as the pandemic has exacerbated widespread staffing issues. .. The federal budget proposal includes $350 million to improve the recruitment and retention of K-12 staff.
  • Cole said he hopes to see the department ensure that the proposal to expand Title I funds for students in need from $17 billion this year to $37 billion next year will come with efforts to hold schools accountable for using these funds to support student success. Cardona said Assistant Education Secretary Cindy Marten has worked to share with districts sound principles for spending those funds wisely.
  • Cardona has repeatedly stressed the importance of addressing mental health in schools, and added that the proposed $1 billion investment in school counselors and social workers would also benefit parents and families who may need these services for themselves. The topic of the mental health ramifications of the pandemic came up this week at lunch with Ashish K. Jha, the recently hired White House coronavirus response coordinator.
  • Rep. Ben Cline, R-Va., Argued that the U.S. bailout contributed to inflation and presented a list of school districts that have spent millions on pandemic relief funds on synthetic turf pitches, an expansion of the weight room, drainage on a football field and two outdoor tracks. Cardona said the department has worked in recent months to strengthen tracking data to see how districts are using the funds, but he said the majority of spending he’s seen goes to important priorities like recovery. school, staffing and building maintenance.

Martha K. Merrill