Obama Team’s Advocacy Boosts Charter Momentum

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 16, 2009 7 min read
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President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been championing charter schools for months, creating what some advocates believe is the most forceful national momentum to expand the largely independent public schools since the first charter opened nearly 20 years ago.

That high-profile advocacy is being matched, moreover, by significant financial leverage, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Mr. Duncan has pledged that states with laws he deems unfriendly to charters will be last in line for the grant money he will have broad authority to award from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund established under the economic-stimulus law.

Repeatedly, Mr. Duncan has warned the 26 states that currently impose caps on the numbers of charter schools, and the 10 states that do not permit charters at all, that they risk being at a “competitive disadvantage” for the discretionary grants for programs to help states boost student achievement.

Mr. Duncan’s focus on states’ charter laws has sparked optimism among some advocates and charter school operators that the long-standing hostility and political barriers that they say have kept such schools from meeting pent-up demand in many states will ease.

“We accepted some dubious bargains to get state laws enacted in the 1990s, and now we are really seeing an opportunity to challenge those bargains that are clearly denying opportunities to children,” said Nelson Smith, the president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington. “This is a major step forward.”

Such momentum could especially useful in California, “where there is still so much hostility toward charters, especially at the school district level,” said Michael D. Piscal, the ceo of the Inner City Education Foundation, a charter network that operates 13 schools in south Los Angeles.

“When the president and the secretary speak so positively of charters and talk about the need for more of them, it helps erode the resistance to us,” Mr. Piscal said.

Talk vs. Action

Mr. Duncan visits North Star Academy in Newark, N.J.

But while attention from such prominent allies has certainly been a public relations coup for charters—President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and Secretary Duncan have collectively visited at least a half-dozen charter schools since January—the impact remains mixed so far.

In Illinois, Mr. Duncan’s home state, lawmakers voted earlier this month to raise, though not eliminate, the caps on charters both in Chicago and statewide. Advocates said those actions would help the roughly 13,000 children on waiting lists for the schools across the state.

Boston’s mayor, Thomas M. Menino, who has been skeptical of charters for years, suddenly shifted positions last week to say he favors turning the city’s low-performing schools into charters. Mr. Menino said he was influenced, in part, by the Race to the Top competition; he is also running for a fifth term against two opponents who favor charter schools.

But in Tennessee, legislation to loosen the enrollment restrictions for charter schools has stalled despite Mr. Duncan’s calls for change there.

And in Maine, where charter advocates have failed for years to enact a law to allow the schools to operate, lawmakers last week defeated a measure to allow the first 10 charters to open. That action took place on the same day that Mr. Duncan, in a press release and a conference call with reporters, singled the state out as one that would likely be at the back of the line for Race to the Top funds.

At least one charter proponent says that Mr. Duncan’s focus on caps is “politically easy” and ignores other, more substantive barriers in states’ charter school laws.

Issues such as who can authorize charter schools and whether collective bargaining by school employees will be allowed are more controversial, but also more important to the health of the charter sector, said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that supports charters and other forms of school choice.

“Raising caps is akin to teacher certification, where people have argued that if we just have enough certified teachers, we’ll have great education,” Ms. Allen said. “When you start talking about those [other] components, you’re talking about getting in the face of some pretty powerful interests.”

As an example of what she sees as the challenge, Ms. Allen noted that the Illinois legislation that raises caps also allows charter school teachers to unionize under the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, and requires that charter schools opened before 2003 have 75 percent of their teaching staffs state-certified within the next four years.

The first lady visits the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Charter School, in Washington.

Still, some advocates are confident that all the charter talk coming out of Washington will change some minds on issues beyond simply raising or removing caps.

Matt Throckmorton, the executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, said that while his state has a 50-school cap, the real battle is around who can enroll in the 16 charters now operating and the 10 that are slated to open in the fall.

Tennessee law currently allows only students who have failed state exams in reading or mathematics or who attend certain low-performing schools to enroll in charters. Legislation is pending that would permit all children who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price meals program to enroll in charters.

“We’re really hoping that the influence of the Race to the Top competition, and what the president and secretary have been saying, is going to get some people to come around on this,” Mr. Throckmorton said. “It can only help.”

Evolving Landscape

When the first charter opened in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992, the charter school movement was small, scrappy, and found much of its early support from political conservatives.

Seventeen years later, roughly 1.4 million students are enrolled in more than 4,500 charters around the country. And such schools, which receive taxpayer support but operate free from most of the traditional rules governing regular public schools, are also the darling of many Democrats and wealthy philanthropic foundations. Their supporters see them as one of the most promising models of school reform in the poorest communities.

Over the years, charter proponents have often argued that the schools would provide healthy competition by exerting pressure on regular public schools to improve.

Now, Mr. Duncan has said they are likely to be a key part of his push to “turn around” thousands of the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

President Obama has also pledged to double spending on the federal Charter Schools Program—a fund that provides startup money for new charters—during his current term. His budget writers have requested $268 million for grants to charter schools in fiscal 2010, up from $216 billion in fiscal 2009.

In addition to Race to the Top money, Mr. Duncan will also be awarding $650 million in grants to school districts and nonprofit groups as part of the “Invest in What Works and Innovation” fund under the stimulus package, money that is expected to make its way to some charter management organizations.

Those intentions prompted a congressional hearing earlier this month.

Two successful charter school operators, John B. King Jr., of the New York City-based Uncommon Schools, and Steve Barr, of Green Dot Public Schools, in Los Angeles, told members of the House Education and Labor Committee what the federal government could do to help charter schools expand to accommodate what some estimate to be waiting lists of more than 350,000 children nationwide.

They found some champions on the committee as well, including Rep. Jared Polis, a first-term Democrat from Colorado who founded charter schools in his home state for new immigrants and homeless youths. Mr. Polis has drafted legislation that would provide $500 million to existing charters to increase enrollment or open additional schools.

But a few skeptical members of the panel quizzed the charter leaders on why the schools need to expand or replace existing public schools. Those lawmakers made it clear that not everyone in Washington believes that replicating charter schools is the answer to problems in the regular public school system.

Rep. John F. Tierney, D-Mass., asked why leaders such as Mr. Barr and Mr. King can’t take what they do in their charter schools and simply import it to existing public schools.

“It looks like we’re setting up a duplicate system with duplicate costs,” Mr. Tierney said.

Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who chairs the committee and is a supporter of charters, answered the question for them: “The idea, with all due respect to my colleagues, that you can simply walk into the public school system or a district school system and say we’d like to do it this way—in most districts, that would be years of debate.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama Team’s Advocacy Boosts Charter Momentum


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