Students arriving at the Preuss School
Students arriving at the Preuss School, a charter on the UC San Diego Campus that is consistently one of the best high schools in the country. Courtesy UCSD

Imagine a world where budding businesses would be required to both obtain permission to enter the marketplace from competitors and then prove to the government that their business would serve community needs. 

Makes no sense, right? Well, welcome to education policy, where the Biden administration is proposing a disastrous regulation, similar to a California law, to stymie charter schools, which are innovative publicly-funded schools independent of school districts. 

Soon after assuming office, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1505 that gave self-interested local school boards the power to deny a charter petition if it found that the proposed charter “is demonstrably unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community.”

Further, under the California law, proposed charter schools can be denied if they “would substantially undermine existing services, academic offerings, or programmatic offerings,” which is an open-ended excuse to block charters.

Also, school boards can disapprove proposed charters if they “duplicate a program currently offered within the school district,” regardless of whether the district is effectively providing the duplicated program.

Perhaps most disturbing, the Newsom-signed law makes it especially difficult for charter schools to start in school districts that are financially mismanaged, thus forcing children to attend inefficient and ineffective regular public schools, which perversely reward the mismanagement of those poorly-run districts.

Eric Heins, then-president of the powerful California Teachers Association, which sponsored AB 1505, asked, “Who is better qualified than local school districts to decide if a charter school is necessary or desirable in their community?” Indeed, who is better than the fox to decide how to guard the henhouse?

It appears the Biden administration has chosen sides with the fox.  

According to President Biden’s proposal, to receive federal support, new charter schools would be required to file “community impact analysis” reports to school boards that prove “unmet demand for the charter school, including any over-enrollment of traditional public schools.” But school boards, often biased in favor of anti-charter teacher unions, can arbitrarily determine what “demand” and “over-enrollment” look like and deny new charter schools the opportunity to even begin educating students. 

Christy Wolfe, policy and research head for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, warns, “the proposed (regulations) would grant authority to nameless and unaccountable reviewers to award points depending how well they feel the new federal definition of community ‘impact’ has been met.”  

Importantly, notes Wolfe, “The criteria appear to be more about protecting the perceived interests of school districts than the educational interests of children.”

Indeed, the Biden administration prioritizes protecting enrollment at regular public schools, which is why the proposed regulations seek to ensure that the number of charter schools “does not exceed the number of public schools needed to accommodate the demand of the community.” But it will be self-interested school boards, not parents and their children, that will define community demand. 

To underscore whose interests are being served by the Biden regulations, to receive federal funds a proposed charter school would need to get a letter of support from a local regular public school or district, a would-be competitor. 

The anti-charter proposal is similar to a failed healthcare policy popularized in the 1980s: certificate of need laws. New healthcare facilities would have to file a “certificate of need” to prove community demand for the services. Existing hospitals could deny the healthcare facility from ever entering the marketplace. 

Originally intended to decrease healthcare costs, decades of research have proven that certificate of need laws led to less access to care, increased cost, and poorer health outcomes. Many states have since removed harmful certificate of need regulations.  

Yet, in the education marketplace, California continues to increase stifling requirements on charter schools. 

National and state teacher unions have pushed to torpedo charter schools. The proposed Biden charter-school regulations are just the latest attempt. Parents need to raise their voices to prevent one of America’s most important school-choice options from being taken away, thus forcing all children to attend one-size-fits-all, and often ineffective, regular public schools.

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute and author of the book The Homeschool Boom. McKenzie Richards is a policy associate at the Pacific Research Institute.