Proponents created public charter schools, in part, to use them to incubate new educational approaches, then replicate the successes. Charters started in Minnesota about 20 years ago, and today there are thousands of them with nearly a million students nationwide.
But not nearly enough of the highest-quality programs have been emulated. For a variety of reasons, few schools have used the best charter school strategies to improve learning for more students.
That’s why a proposed federal bill that would encourage states and districts to help grow high-quality charter programs merits support. The measure was sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who serves as chairman of the House education committee, and U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the panel, which passed the bill in a 36-3 vote last month.
Charter programs are public schools that are created and operated outside traditional public school districts by independent boards. Under state law, charters can set some of their own labor and curriculum rules to find innovative ways to improve student achievement.
Currently, the federal Department of Education operates two general grant programs for charter schools. Under the new bill, called the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, those programs would be consolidated into one and refocused. The DOE would continue to award grants to high-quality charters and facilities assistance through the states.
However, a significant difference is that the bill would expand an existing DOE grant competition for charter management organizations. That would open up opportunities for charters in states that don’t win or compete for federal funding.
The measure also clarifies states’ ability to use “weighted lotteries,” which give preference to low-income students and other disadvantaged children in admissions. In addition, it would allow students who graduate from one charter school to continue in an affiliated school in higher grades without having to go back through a lottery.
And the federal department could more actively disseminate information about successful programs to help other public schools improve.
The revamped program would wisely offer incentives for states to help develop charters and make it easier for the successful ones to open more schools. Currently, charter operators can get federal grants to open new schools, but not to expand existing, successful models.
And Kline’s bill would increase federal financial support for charters. It would authorize about $300 million per year in spending on help for charters, up from the roughly $250 million spent in the most recent budget.
Charter opponents note that the proposal fails to address concerns about failing charters — though the bill states that funding goes only to high-quality, effective schools. As the congressman points out, states and authorizers have and must use the ability to close programs that aren’t working.
Nearly the same legislation was proposed in 2011 as part of the much-needed overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act. The charter school portion had broad bipartisan support then. But the larger bill to renew NCLB never made it to the Senate floor.
The House and Senate have not been able to reach agreement on an overall education bill — even though the reauthorization is several years overdue. And while it would be preferable get the larger bill done, passing the smaller charter school portion would be better than getting nothing at all accomplished.
Kline’s bill is scheduled to be heard on the House floor this week, which also happens to be National Charter Schools Week. That should be perfect timing for legislation that would help charters fulfill the lofty goals of their supporters.