Lawmakers Work on Lifting Charter Cap

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Four months before the 2010 Legislature is slated to begin, Idaho lawmakers are working on a bill that would amend state law to lift the cap limiting the number of new charter schools each year. At stake are federal grants from a nearly $5 billion fund made available by President Barack Obama.

The grants will be awarded to states pursuing innovative reforms, like raising academic standards, adopting common student assessment tests and improving teacher quality. To get the money, states may have to do things they, or the teacher unions, dislike.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has cautioned that states that do not allow charter schools or place caps on their growth are jeopardizing their chances to win the grants under the "Race to the Top Fund."

In a recession that has strangled state budgets, the federal grants are proving impossible for some states to resist and Idaho policy makers are working quickly to make sure they get some of it.

"These are very competitive grants," said Clete Edmunson, education adviser to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. "President Obama and secretary Duncan have made it pretty clear there are a few stipulations."

Idaho law limits the number of new charter schools to six a year. It was put in place several years ago amid concerns their growth would lead to declining enrollment and reduced funding at traditional public schools.

The governor's office, which has yet to take a stance on the charter school cap, is discussing legislation with the head of the Idaho Senate and House education committees that would lift the restrictions, Edmunson said.

"We really haven't addressed this specifically, but the governor believes in a good system of education and good high- performing schools and that includes public, private and charter schools," Edmunson said. "We're not just going to say we agree with lifting the cap without making sure we have a good charter school system."

Nationwide, 40 states have embraced charter schools as part of a movement to create new, more autonomous public schools. As one of 26 states that place restrictions on them, Idaho policy makers are scrambling to lift the cap. The grants are expected to go to perhaps 10 to 20 states that can serve as models for innovation, leaders in reform for schools nationwide.

"It's going to take a lot of work on our part here to put together the grant," said public schools chief Tom Luna. "It's going to take some cooperation with the legislature, the governor's office, the teacher's union, administrators. It's going to take not only an organized effort, but a broad support for that effort in order to be successful.

"The main thing we need the legislature to do is address the cap on charter schools because the president and the secretary have been very clear," Luna said.

Seven states — Tennessee, Rhode Island, Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado and Illinois — have lifted restrictions on charter schools so they can compete for the money.

Idaho lawmakers initially created the cap to protect the regular public school system, and the drive to lifting it could be filled with political roadblocks. The Idaho teachers union is among groups working with the state Department of Education on Idaho's application for Race to the Top funding, which is due at the end of the year.

The federal Race to the Top money is designed to increase the quality of education, and accountability for public schools, said union president Sherri Wood. "Simply taking off the cap does not increase accountability and quality," Wood said.

"I just think we need to make sure we look long hard look at what we're doing here and not change our laws just because there might be some money there."

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