Second of Five NCLB Bills Supports Charters, Moves Forward

Published July 20, 2011

As part of their piecemeal approach toward reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, congressional Republicans are getting support from Democrats for modifying part of the dominant federal education law to encourage states to develop and expand high-quality charter schools.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee voted 34-5 to move The Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 2218) forward for a floor vote. The bill could make it easier for the 400,000 students currently on charter-school waitlists nationwide to get a seat in a school started by a proven, high-quality operator.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), “will help get the government out of the way of local innovation,” said committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN). 

Congress is four years late on its scheduled NCLB reauthorization. The law’s current version demands 100 percent proficiency of the nation’s schools by 2014, a target states have long said they cannot meet. Montana and Idaho recently announced they will ignore the law’s requirements this year, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan started a tempest by saying he plans to grant states waivers of the law’s requirements in return for unspecified education policy changes the Obama administration favors. 

Streamlining Funding, Increasing Flexibility
HR 2218 is the second in a series of five bills Kline plans for reauthorizing NCLB. In May the committee passed the Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act, which would repeal more than 40 of NCLB’s inactive, ineffective, or duplicative programs. The 23-16 committee vote for it split strictly along party lines, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing.  

In addition to consolidating several federal charter money streams into state-level grants that will allow more flexibility in awarding grants for charter school start-ups, HR 2218 provides funding for expanding high-quality charters. Currently, charter operators can get federal grants only for opening new schools, not for expanding existing ones that have proven successful. 

The measure also calls for “proper monitoring of authorizers and charter schools in the state” and expands the grant period from three to five years to ensure sufficient time for schools to stabilize. 

“Done right, charter school authorizing creates and maintains a space for charters to succeed or fail on their own merit, protecting them from political agendas and special interest demands,” said David Hansen, vice president of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Assistance Acquiring Facilities
Hunter’s bill frees funds from two existing but little-used grant programs to assist charter schools in acquiring facilities and gives funding priority to states that ensure funding for charters equates that for traditional public schools, said Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. 

“Securing viable and affordable facilities to house charters remains one of their greatest challenges in most constituencies nationally,” Soifer said. Charters usually receive less per pupil than traditional public schools, and no facilities money.

Soifer said he expects Hunter’s “very thoughtful approach” to encourage state and local policymakers to equalize funding, but he notes Washington’s ability to bring change is limited. 

“The best resolutions are going to be different in different states and cities, depending on how the laws differ on who owns and controls buildings,” he said. 

Encouragement to Loosen Caps 
HR 2218 prioritizes its funds to states that agree to repeal caps on the number or percentage of charters or students who may attend them. 

Also, states that allow more than an educational agency to authorize charters, provide financing to charters comparable to traditional public schools, support either full-blending or hybrid-online charter models, and use charters to improve struggling schools would slip to the front of the line when seeking federal charter funds. 

Supporters say removing bureaucratic obstacles, implementing innovative funding streams, and including rigorous evaluation requirements will improve the nation’s public education system by reducing the federal footprint and encouraging high-quality charter schools. 

But how states administer the legislation’s provisions will “really make the greatest difference in the legislation’s overall effort being positive or negative,” Soifer said.

Soifer praised Hunter for understanding “the closer education decisions are made to home, the greater the likelihood they will benefit students.” 

Image of Wilmington, DE charter school students by Ruokai Chen.