House Members Question Charter School Access to Federal Funds

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Most directors of charter schools feel they have adequate access to federal funding for at-risk and disabled children, according to preliminary results of a study by the General Accounting Office.

But some members of Congress remain skeptical that such schools receive their fair share of federal dollars, compared with traditional public schools--or that charter school administrators are even aware they can receive such funds.

Rep. Frank Riggs, the California Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, brought funding questions to the forefront at a hearing on charters last week.

Mr. Riggs and other subcommittee members said they were worried that charter schools--which are publicly funded but typically operate free of many state and local regulations--were not receiving their full share of support under federal programs such as Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Many of the members' concerns could not be directly addressed, representatives of the GAO said, because states and districts are given broad discretion over distributing most federal money, and funding varies widely. The full report by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, is slated to be released in April.

But some charters may have missed out on Title I dollars for schools that serve a high proportion of disadvantaged students because they did not have the data needed to prove that their students had histories of low academic performance, according to Cornelia Blanchette, the GAO's associate director for education and employment issues. The investigators' preliminary findings show that charter school operators surveyed in seven states cited inadequate time and resources and a lack of knowledge about the process of applying for federal grants as deterrents to staking claims to federal funds.

Some charter school operators have also resisted applying for aid because of philosophical disputes over the wisdom of accepting federal support and the massive paperwork involved, according to the GAO.

The information did not sit well with Republican members of the panel, who earlier this year vowed to reduce bureaucracy in federal education programs.

Mr. Riggs said that charter school legislation he intends to introduce next month might contain language to ensure that charters receive a fair share of federal funding. The committee was unable to provide further details.

A Charter Priority

While members of Congress have been debating fiscal 1998 appropriations and a plan for new national tests in recent weeks, Mr. Riggs has focused much of his energy on charters.

Mr. Riggs co-sponsored, with Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., a successful amendment to the House appropriations bill to increase federal funding for charter schools to $100 million, the same amount President Clinton requested. The current federal appropriation for charter start-up money is $50.9 million.

And he delivered the Republican radio address on Sept. 13, saying that the GOP was responding to parents who wanted better schools for their children. "We want to expand new innovations such as charter schools and give options for parents who want a greater say in how and where their children are educated," Mr. Riggs said in the address.

While several Democrats on the subcommittee last week were generally supportive of charters, the ranking member warned against looking at such schools as a silver bullet for education reform.

Rep. Matthew G. Martinez, D-Calif., said Congress must also focus on improving the traditional public schools. Money spent to buy textbooks and supplies for charter schools could be used to buy computers and upgrade technology in existing schools, he suggested.

"What I'm worried about is all those kids we're leaving behind in public schools," he said.

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