Federal

Rare Bipartisan Support Secures Charter Bill Passage

By Alyson Klein — September 20, 2011 3 min read
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The U.S. House of Representatives took what has become a rare step last week: It passed an education bill with broad bipartisan support. The Sept. 13 bill involving charter schools passed by an overwhelming vote of 365 to 54—but there was still a lot of drama behind the scenes.

The measure is one of a number of small, targeted bills the House will consider in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act. It would allow states to tap federal funds to replicate charter school models that have a track record of success. Right now, the federal charter school program is financed at $255 million.

In the past, federal charter laws were “really focused on growing new models, and that was very appropriate when the charter movement was getting launched,” said Alice Johnson Cain, the vice president for external relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington. “Twenty years in, we have a good sense of what the effective schools are.” She said the bill would encourage “replication and expansion of models we know work.”

The bill would also help charters gain access to high-quality facilities; advocates say charters are often stuck in some of the least desirable buildings. And it would encourage states to work with charters to help them serve special populations, such as students in special education.

The floor speeches on the bill showed a level of bipartisan agreement in what is a politically polarized Congress.

“Charter schools are a valuable part of our efforts to improve the education available to our children,” U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said during floor debate. “I am very pleased that members of the Education and the Workforce Committee have put their differences aside and worked through a very bipartisan process to develop an exceptional piece of legislation.”

Anxious Moments

His sentiments were echoed by U.S. Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the committee. “Both sides of the aisle have strong proponents of this legislation and of the charter school movement in this country,” Mr. Miller said in floor debate.

But, off stage, some education advocates were anxiously watching the vote on an amendment introduced by U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, which would have suspended the requirement that charter schools disaggregate their student data. For instance, charters would not have had to show how English-language learners, students in special education, or racial minorities were performing compared with the rest of the students at their schools.

The amendment ultimately was defeated on a vote of 374 to 43. The amendment dealt with charters, which are a relatively small percentage of public schools. But advocates considered it a test of what the new, much more conservative House thinks of the disaggregation of student data, which is at the heart of NCLB’s accountability system.

Mr. Kline and Mr. Miller were united in opposing the amendment.

“The King amendment would strike critical language from the underlying legislation, and could allow charter schools to mask the achievements of subgroups of students in order to receive federal funding,” said Mr. Kline’s spokeswoman, Alexandra Sollberger, in an email.

Mr. Miller circulated a letter urging his colleagues to reject the amendment, calling the provision “a poison pill.”

A number of education groups that backed the bill also sent a letter opposing the amendment.

The House also rejected, on a vote of 220 to 195, an amendment that would give priority to charters that want to become “greener” in doling out school facilities money.

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as Charter Bill Passes House, With Rare Bipartisan Support

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