Congress Weighs Increasing Federal Funding, Oversight of Charter Schools

Published March 15, 2010

Congress is considering how to expand charter schools as part of its revamping of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A bill by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), the All Students Achieving through Reform Act (All-STAR Act) would create a new $500 million federal grant program for expanding charters in the states.

Grants to state and local education agencies would be distributed to charter schools, with priority for those with a large majority of low-income students.

Some Endorsements

The bill accords with the Obama administration’s announced plans to increase the number of public charter schools in the nation. State applications for the federal Race to the Top grant program—the $4.35 billion slice of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—were supposed to indicate states will “ensure successful conditions” for charter schools in order to qualify for grant money.

Charters, which are public schools, receive local and state funding but operate autonomously and are free from much of the red tape that binds traditional public schools. More than 1.5 million children attend 5,000 charter schools nationwide.

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, supports Polis’s bill, which he said would allow existing schools to apply for grants to help with transportation and hire additional staff.

Several charter school operators, including Eva Moskowitz, CEO and founder of the Harlem Success Academy, and Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, testified in favor of the All-STAR Act in February.

‘Clearly a State Issue’

But Carrie Lukas, vice president for policy at the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington DC, questions the need for the federal government to get involved in charter schools.

“We really need to ask ourselves whether this is the proper role of the federal government,” Lukas said. “Having Washington collect this money and redistribute it to encourage charter growth does not fall under the purview of the federal government.”

“If the federal government is going to continue spending billions on K-12 education, this is one of the better ways to spend that money,” Lukas added. “But we do need to take a step back and ask ourselves why Washington is pushing policy that is clearly a state issue.”

There are also questions how a greater federal role in charter schools would impact education reform overall.

“Why should the system that bears heavy responsibility for putting students at risk of not succeeding in the first place be entrusted with billions more education dollars?” asked Vicki Murray, assistant director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

“Rather than have schooling bureaucracies compete with each other for federal funding, education dollars should follow students in the form of grants, forcing schools to compete for students. That way, schools have more flexibility to implement programs that meet the unique needs of the students in their communities—not one-size-fits-all federal mandates,” Murray said.

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a policy analyst in domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.