Key Democrat’s Plan Would Boost Charter Schools

By David J. Hoff — March 13, 2008 4 min read
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A prominent Democrat in Congress is proposing an alternative to President Bush’s $300 million private-school-choice plan that would instead supplement the budgets of the nation’s charter schools.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois is developing a plan that would allow parents of children attending low-performing schools to enroll their children in a charter school—or any other public school—and the federal government would supplement the budget of that school.

The proposal would give Democrats an alternative to voting for a private-school-choice plan and would provide the growing charter school movement a boost, according to political and policy analysts.

Charter schools currently receive about 78 percent of the per-pupil funding that regular public schools receive, and charters struggle to raise money for capital expenses, said Todd M. Ziebarth, the vice president for policy at the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a Washington-based group.

“Because of the current funding situation, … this kind of federal support would be enormously helpful,” Mr. Ziebarth said. “It synchs up nicely with a lot of individuals and organizations that have gotten involved in the charter movement with the sole purpose of closing the achievement gap.”


But school choice advocates suggest Rep. Emanuel’s plan is inadequate because it wouldn’t add any new schools to the options available to students.

“It’s a stimulus package for charter schools,” said Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy for the National Catholic Educational Association, a Washington-based group representing some 7,000 Roman Catholic schools in the United States. “If choice is good, then choice should be full and fair. … Options should include public, charter, independent, and religious schools.”

Choice Alternative

When President Bush announced his Pell Grants for Kids proposal in his State of the Union address in January, Democrats immediately announced their opposition, saying that they wouldn’t support efforts to direct federal money to private schools. (“Bush’s Latest ‘Voucher’ Idea May Face Same Fate as Others,” Feb. 6, 2008.)

Last month, though, Rep. Emanuel said that he would introduce a charter school alternative to the president’s proposal.

“When it comes to education, parents and students deserve to have a choice. Instead of taking money out of the public schools, we need to expand school choice options within public schools,” he said in a Feb. 21 press release.

Mr. Emanuel, who was a White House adviser during the Clinton administration, would target the $300 million under the proposed program to the same students as President Bush would. To have access to money under the program, children would need to attend a school with a high dropout rate or one that was being restructured under the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools in the restructuring phase have missed their annual achievement targets for five years.

Although Rep. Emanuel hasn’t introduced a bill to implement his idea, his proposal is likely to be taken seriously. The Chicago congressman is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus—the fourth-highest position in the House’s Democratic hierarchy—and is credited with developing the political strategy that helped Democrats win the majority in the House in the 2006 elections.

Rep. Emanuel’s proposal is good political strategy, because it gives Democrats an alternative to the president’s plan, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

“Democrats lose the choice debate if the debate is choice versus no choice,” said Mr. Rotherham, who worked with Rep. Emanuel on President Clinton staff. “If there is a debate about [choice], this is a smart way to get at it.”

But one supporter of both charter schools and private school choice said the proposal is too narrowly targeted. The federal government already provides money for charter schools, but it doesn’t assist private schools that are struggling to survive, said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates for alternatives to regular public schools.

“This issue is about having a wide variety of choices for kids,” Ms. Allen said. “It shouldn’t be an either-or with charters and private schools.”

Vouchers for Charters?

It is clear that Rep. Emanuel and other Democrats won’t support a federal effort to underwrite tuition for private schools. But it’s unclear exactly how his proposal to support charter schools would work.

Rep. Emanuel’s press release said that families “could use the funding to attend a nearby charter school.” That implies a per-pupil allocation that would follow a child to the charter school and supplement the school’s budget.

That extra money could give a charter school the incentive to expand its existing school or to open a new one, Mr. Ziebarth said.

Charter schools need access to new forms of federal money, he added, because the largest federal charter school program, which provides $211 million to launch new schools, is inadequate.

But the plan wouldn’t address the critical needs of Roman Catholic schools in central cities, which are struggling to survive amid growing competition from charter schools. (“Catholic Closures Linked to Growth of City Charters,” Feb. 13, 2008.)

President Bush is convening a White House meeting on April 24 to discuss the declining numbers of parochial and other private schools schools in urban areas.

“The burden is on us to make the differences clear between our schools and charter schools, so parents can make an informed choice,” said Sister McDonald of the NCEA.

A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Democrat’s Plan Would Boost Charter Schools


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