Many of us were excited with the announcement last weekend of a new President-elect and Vice President-elect, especially after living through the exhausting vote counting and hand wringing process of that preceded it. Now that the election looks to be settled, the question on my mind—and probably yours too—is “what’s next?”
For those of us working in or with independent community-based charter schools, our expectations of the Biden-Harris administration are complicated. On the one hand it’s great that, after years in which the Department of Education has prioritized vouchers and for-profit educational ventures, the new administration will probably focus on bolstering public K-12 educational programs, especially in high-need communities. Indeed, the Biden Plan for Educators, Students and Our Future calls for “Investing in all children from birth so that regardless of their zip code, parents’ income, race or disability, they are prepared to succeed in tomorrow’s economy.” Accordingly, we can expect new grants and investments in K-12 initiatives for schools that support disadvantaged and at-risk students.
On the other hand, many voices critical of charter schools have been prominent in the campaign and will probably have a say in the Biden/Harris administration. We can expect that the next President and Education Department will face pressure from teachers’ unions and others to impede the expansion of charter schools. Indeed, President-elect. Biden has proposed significant changes to federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) grants along with some restrictions for new federal charter school funding. However, most of the criticism leveled against charter schools by the Biden campaign has been targeted at the less -than-15% of charter schools that are overseen by for-profit companies. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations state that “we will ban for–profit private charter businesses from receiving federal funding” for charter schools. Clearly President-elect Biden, who served as Vice-President in President Barack Obama’s pro-charter school administration, is not condemning all charter schools but is pushing to limit a small percentage of them.
So what does this mean for independent, community-based charter schools?
We are in a time of incredible opportunity for independent charter schools. President-elect Biden has promised hundreds of millions of dollars in new education spending from pre-K through college. The Biden Education Plan calls for the country to “Build the best, most innovative schools in the country in low-income communities and communities of color.” Independent charter schools are currently providing innovative and effective education to students in disadvantaged communities and communities of color. These schools are perfectly positioned to help achieve the Biden Education Plan’s goals.
The strength of independent charter schools is their fundamental and organic connection to their communities and families. The independent charter schools I have been privileged to work with were created by parents, educators and community leaders, and they are committed to addressing the specific needs of children and youth in their communities. In one instance, I can remember participating in preliminary “kitchen table” meetings with prominent pastor Rev. Dr. Leslie Mullings and parents, local businesspersons and activists in Far Rockaway NY as they discussed the dire need for educational alternatives in their community and laid out the building blocks for an innovative charter school. I’m proud to say that my partners and I worked with this group to establish the Challenge Preparatory Charter School (Challenge Prep), one of the most successful independent charter schools in New York City. Challenge Prep has been renewed twice and is now expanding to create a groundbreaking K-12 CTE program in connection with the multi-billion-dollar transformation of the JFK International Airport.
I believe that independent charter schools can leverage their trusted position with parents and their communities, which is their core strength, to succeed in the new Presidential era. President-elect Biden and his wife Jill, a teacher, have often spoke of the need for strong connections between parents and schools. Independent charter schools traditionally have strong community roots and provide service to their communities. Take for example VOICE Charter School in Queens NY, which bought and distributed food to low-income children and families in its community throughout the 2020 COVID-19 disruption. VOICE Principal Franklin Headley and his staff rented a U-Haul truck to bring food to its site and established a food-sharing center at its school for families throughout the community. The VOICE Charter School story is not an outlier but is just an example of how independent charter schools typically “step up” to help their parents and families whenever needed. Indeed, the key ingredient that fuels the success of independent charter schools is their relationships with and service to their students’ parents and families.
The connection between the Biden Education Plan and the every-day life of independent charter schools is direct and clear. Independent charter schools are living the objectives of the President-elect’s educational plan. A key objective of the Biden Education Plan is to increase the number of students in “community schools”—i.e. schools that “work with families, students, teachers and community organizations to identify families’ unmet needs and then develop a plan to leverage community resources to address these needs in the school building, turning schools into community hubs.” This description of “community schools” is the absolute definition of most independent charter schools. Frankly, most of the independent charter schools I’ve worked with have embraced the concept of community schooling by partnering with community agencies and organizations to serve their students and parents.
So to all my friends and colleagues in the independent charter school community, I suggest that we work with the new Presidential administration and that we take advantage of every opportunity that comes along to show how independent charter schools are helping children. I expect that new grant and other funding opportunities for independent charter schools will arise in the next few years. I also expect that new openings will emerge for independent charter schools to claim a significant voice in the national dialogue about K-12 education, JPS Solutions and our Essential Charter School Services team will monitor these opportunities closely and will share them with you.
Let’s look positively to the future as we continue to support our children and families. Better days are ahead.
Written by Wayne D. Jones
Partner, JPS Solutions LLC