Senate Must Undo House Appropriations Committee's Discrimination Against Students

Senate Must Undo House Appropriations Committee's Discrimination Against Students
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Buried deep in the massive $600 billion “minibus” appropriations package the House passed last month are two discriminatory provisions against 3.3 million school children who attend charter schools. As both Chambers consider this spending bill and other related spending measures this fall, Senators should do away with these provisions.

Democrats on the House Appropriation Committee’s subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies cut $40 million from the federal Charter School Program (CSP), which exists to increase high quality public education options for students whose needs are not being met in traditional public schools. Most public charter school students are minorities and more live in low income households than traditional public school students.

It’s galling that the House voted to increase education spending to $102.8 billion in the same bill it cut the CSP, which accounts for less than 1% of federal K-12 education spending. And it’s ironic that they picked public charter schools’ 30th anniversary to pick charter schools’ pockets. The Biden administration — ambivalent at best — didn’t even ask them to. The president’s budget proposal called for funding the CSP at the same level as the past three years.

It’s probably a safe bet the teachers unions asked, though. Most public charter schools are non-unionized, so the unions make life difficult for charter schools. That requires cultivating politicians to help — like Committee members who unanimously killed an amendment that would’ve allowed a full House vote on the bill’s public charter school provisions.

The Senate needs to do better. It also needs to pay close attention to the bill’s second hostile-to-charter-school measure. The offensive language “prohibits funds made available by this Act or any other Act from being awarded to a charter school that contracts with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.”

Singling out public charter schools for doing business with for-profit companies is odd, because all publicly-funded schools purchase some goods or services from for-profit vendors. And no one complains when schools contract with businesses to meet legitimate needs.

Consider Aramark Corporation. Roughly 20 percent of its revenues for managing food, facilities and janitorial services come from the education sector. Finishing the first quarter of 2021 with $2.4 billion cash on hand, its website boasts it serves 275 million meals to students in 500 school districts each year. Many of those meals are subsidized through the federal free or reduced lunch program, because we understand that children learn better when they have access to nutritious meals. In 2018, Aramark gave its Wall Street investors 19 percent of its free cash flow in the form of dividends.

Even more central to schools’ raison d’etre: most K-12 public school districts purchase curriculum, textbooks, and digital learning tools from publicly traded corporations such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and others. Publishing houses frequently merge or spin off new businesses to maximize revenue. In 2019, Pearson, coming off a $26 million profit year, sold its U.S. K-12 courseware business to a Los Angeles-based private equity firm for $250 million. All of this money changing hands started as taxpayer money, whether federal Title I money designated to help improve education for low-income students, Title III money to support special education students, and so on.

But if the budget passes as written, public charter schools that contract with commercial publishers to oversee their instructional content, or hire for-profit companies to manage their cafeterias or transportation, would be disqualified from receiving federal dollars that will continue to be distributed to traditional public schools.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) disputes this. In a statement to The Hill she claimed that the language her Committee inserted into the bill "is clearly focused on ending the practice of charters accepting federal funds only to have the school run by a low-quality, for-profit company rife with conflicts of interest."

But that’s not how the bill reads. The Senate should seize the opportunity to excise the sloppy, overbroad language from the final draft. Merely revising the provision is also unwarranted. Charter school accountability is baked in without poison darts from Capitol Hill: low-performing or mismanaged charter schools lose their charters and their right to operate the school, unlike traditional public schools that fail unchecked for decades.

And in the context of current events, seeking to make life more difficult for public charter schools may be short-sighted. Parents want more, not fewer, charter schools. For a year and a half, parents have watched their children struggle with remote learning due to school closures, in many cases prolonged by teachers’ unions, while many charters and private schools reopened. As a result, parents — including 72 percent of Democrats — want more alternatives to traditional education models. A February 2021 poll from EdChoice found that 75% of parents support charter schools. If a school is doing a good job for their children, parents likely are not concerned under which section of the IRS tax code the management of its programs is organized.

The Senate could go a step further — instead of rejecting some House Democrats' attack on charter school students, they could increase the CSP for 2022. That would be responsive to the moment - and the mood of parents — including parents of the three-to-five million students nationwide who’re languishing on charter school waiting lists.

Tressa Pankovits is Co-Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at Progressive Policy Institute.

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