Don’t burden charter schools with tighter rules on federal funding

Our students come from the most challenging communities. No matter their situation, LEARN Charter Network offers these scholars, and their families, a beacon of hope.

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Students from LEARN Charter School listen to a presentation.

Students from LEARN Charter School listen to a presentation in this file photo from 2014.

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Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recently expressed his support for charter schools in an interview with the Washington Post, citing them as innovative options for families and students. As the leader of a charter school network, I have seen this success first-hand.

I am surprised, therefore, that the Biden administration is considering a series of rules changes that would significantly impact how charter schools are able to access start-up funding through the Charter School Program (CSP).

The rules stipulate that new charters would not be eligible for CSP funding unless they can show there is unmet demand in the district’s public schools. Not only is this extremely difficult to quantify, it unfairly shifts power back into the hands of school districts rather than families and students who may be looking for a different public school option.

These rushed rules also work against urban communities and communities of color. Not only have these communities been historically underserved, they’ve also been hit hardest by the pandemic and their students are often the ones most in need of more education options.

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These rules would make it harder for schools like ours, which serve mostly students from minority backgrounds and low-income households, to receive CSP funding.

LEARN Charter School Network is a college preparatory pre-k through eighth-grade school with campuses in Illinois and Washington, D.C.

When we first opened in Chicago, we had 100 seats to offer. We received over 1,000 applications. Parents were eager to enroll their children in a school with a college focus. From the moment our scholars walk through the door, we work to prepare them for scholastic success.

Our students may graduate from LEARN by eighth grade, but our work is not done after that. We follow our scholars’ progress and support them up to and through college. LEARN alumni are twice as likely to earn a college degree compared to their peers. We are focused on first-generation college students — the trailblazers, the ones who defy the odds and make us all proud.

Our students come from the most challenging communities. Many grow up in poverty or surrounded by violence. Some come from military families, an often-overlooked population. No matter their situation, LEARN offers these scholars and their families a beacon of hope. We are not just a school. We are a resource.

The past two years made that fact crystal-clear.

COVID-19 threw us all for a loop, but it threatened the communities we serve the most. It is a well-established fact that minority communities and those living below the poverty line were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. We knew we could not let our services waver. We needed to be there for our scholars.

And we were there, supporting our families, every single day.

Our services went beyond education, because we know it takes more than school hours to produce a successful adult. We delivered six million meals to homes across the state. We supplied our families with Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots to ensure they did not miss a minute of learning. We helped our families persevere.

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None of this would have been possible without the successful start we were able to make with CSP funding. Startup capital is hard to raise, and vitally important to making sure a school is ready on day one.

CSP provides charter schools with the startup capital and knowledge to open successfully — and more importantly, to serve the communities who most need unique educational options. Best of all, CSP bolsters existing schools just as much as it allows new charters to confidently open their doors.

Thanks to CSP, we have opened multiple schools in just a few years. That adds up to thousands of scholars — thousands of kids — who have access to more opportunities than they could have ever thought possible. There couldn’t be a worse time to slow the growth of great educational options like public charter schools, by making it harder for them to access funds that allow them, and their students, to thrive.

Greg White is President and CEO of Learn Charter School Network.

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