School & District Management

Federal Charter Measure Clears Hurdle in House

By Alyson Klein — April 15, 2014 4 min read
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States and districts would be encouraged to help grow high-quality charter schools—and ensure that they enroll and retain English-language learners and students in special education—under a bipartisan bill approved overwhelmingly by the House Education and the Workforce Committee last week.

The measure, which was sponsored by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the panel, was approved by a vote of 36 to 3 on April 8.

During debate on the bill, a number of committee Democrats lambasted charter schools for siphoning off resources from other public schools—before voting for the legislation anyway.

Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., bemoaned the fact that the bill does not require charter schools to hold open meetings, a criticism also levied by the National Education Association. And Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., even went so far as to say that charter schools are leading the country “back to a time before Brown v. the Board of Education.”

Still, only three Democrats voted against the legislation: Reps. Tim Bishop of New York, Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, and Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio. All of the Republicans voted in favor of it.

“I concede that not everyone is as enthusiastic about the successes of charter schools as I am, or perhaps Mr. Miller” is, Rep. Kline said. But, he said in visiting some high-quality charter schools in his home state, “it’s easy to see why they have waiting lists of a thousand.”

Under the measure, the two main federal programs for charter schools would be consolidated, combining federal grants to help charter school developers open new schools, with money to help charters find and fix up facilities. Overall, it calls for $300 million a year in federal funding for charters, a little more than the roughly $250 million the current Charter School Grants program received in the most recent budget, for fiscal year 2014, which started back on Oct. 1.

Incentives for States

The revamped program would provide incentives for states to help develop charter schools and make it easier for those who operate charters with a track record of success to open more schools. Right now, charter operators can get federal grants to open new schools, but not to expand existing, successful models.

The bill closely mirrors legislation, also supported by Reps. Kline and Miller, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives by broad, bipartisan margins back in 2011, as well as the charter portion of a broader bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which only garnered GOP support. Neither bill ever made it to the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The big difference in this new piece of legislation: The charter school bill would officially bless a competition that’s already been underway at the U.S. Department of Education, allowing the federal government to allocate grants directly to charter management organizations—groups like KIPP or Aspire. That would help charter school operators expand even in some states that aren’t friendly to charter schools, said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., a member of the panel who helped champion the competition.

The fund is an “acknowledgement that some states either have an anti-charter-school political dynamic or have regional challenges that prevent them from providing high-quality charter schools where they are most needed,” said Rep. Polis in an interview.

And the bill makes it clear that states can use so-called “weighted lotteries,” meaning that they can give preference to low-income students, racial minorities, and other disadvantaged children in admissions. That’s something the Obama administration has also already embraced. In addition, it would allow students who graduate from one charter school (an elementary school, for example) to enroll in an affiliated school (such as a middle school) without having to go back through a lottery.

Praise and Criticism

Advocates for charter schools strongly support the legislation, including the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. And some advocates for students with disabilities—a group that many argue has been ignored by the charter sector—are also on board, including the Council for Exceptional Children and the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Union Concerns

But Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association, a 3 million-member teachers’ union, said the bill doesn’t go far enough when it comes to increasing accountability measures for charter schools.

The bill “falls short of safeguards needed in the two-decade-old charter sector,” she said. For instance, she explained, the bill doesn’t require charters that get private money to disclose how much and who it is from. That’s something state and federal laws for nonprofit organizations often govern, but Ms. Kusler argued that disclosure laws vary state by state. It also doesn’t require charters to have the same open-meetings laws as other public schools.

Still, Ms. Kusler sees the bill, overall, as an improvement on current federal laws governing charter accountability. For instance, she likes a provision that would call for states to spell out their oversight plans for charter school authorizers.

The charter school bill is slated to be on the floor the week of May 5, coinciding with National Charter School week, said Megan Whittemore, a spokeswoman for House Major Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Charter Measure Clears a Congressional Hurdle, More to Come

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