Will Federal ‘Help’ Stifle Charters?

Published July 1, 2000

WASHINGTON — The federal government may be able to encourage further explosive growth of charter schools in subtle ways, but it must avoid “loving charters to death” by swaddling them in re-regulation. That was the common ground reached by politically diverse speakers who addressed “How Washington Can Help Charter Schools” at a May 16 Capitol Hill conference sponsored by the Lexington Institute. Speaking were five members of Congress, plus charter-school grassroots activists, entrepreneurs, and policy experts.

Charter schools are public schools freed from many bureaucratic and union rules in exchange for a promise by their organizers that they will deliver academic results. Since its start with one school in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1991, the charter school movement has grown to 1,700 charters enrolling 350,000 students. Thirty-six states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have passed charter school enabling laws.

Alex Medler, a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Education (DoEd), expressed the Clinton-Gore administration’s strong support for charter schools, calling them “a stimulus to broader reform.” He said that in support of doubling charter schools by 2002, the administration is proposing $175 million more for charter school startups, on top of the $400 million Washington chipped in during the 1990s.

Medler’s presentation provided an opportunity for Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin to highlight his concerns with a touch of humor, admitting to being “a little nervous” that a person whose name sounds like “meddler” is handling charter school policy at DoEd. Petri said “there is a fine federal line between helping and hurting charter schools.”

“The bigger the federal role, the smaller the role charter schools will play in raising student performance,” warned the Congressman.

The most specific proposal discussed by conferees was H.R. 4032, the Charter School Financing Act, sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico. The biggest barrier for emerging charters, she said, is the ability to finance suitable facilities. Her bill would establish a $600 million federal fund to guarantee facilities loans to charter-school organizers. She estimated this guarantee of repayment would release about $9 billion in low-interest bank loans across the country.

The program, Wilson predicted, would spur tremendous “charter school growth and renovation.”

Her proposal drew a mixed response. Vernon Robinson, who as president of the North Carolina Education Reform Foundation is a leading activist for both charter schools and vouchers, applauded Wilson’s initiative “to leverage loans for charter school capital needs.” He noted that major North Carolina banks had agreed to cooperate in setting up just such a state-level program, but the state’s education bureaucracy scuttled the plan.

But Steven Wilson, CEO of Advantage Schools, a charter school management company, expressed reservations. Washington should be cautious about starting such ventures, he said, because a strength of charter schools is that they “are risk takers.” Guaranteed loans might “break through that venture capital design.” He added, though, that he would be partial to some sort of “credit enhancement program” for charter organizers.

Former California Congressman Frank Riggs, author of the 1998 Charter Schools Expansion Act, said he believes there are common-sense ways Washington “really can help” without being intrusive. Among the steps he mentioned were seeing to it that new charter schools receive their fair share of categorical aid in a timely manner, and fostering a Charter Schools Development Corporation.

But Riggs and several other speakers condemned the kind of federal interference embodied in the Clinton administration’s proposed requirement, part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization, that 95 percent of all teachers, including charter teachers, be state-certified within four years. Petri noted that “real-world experience,” as opposed to education-school conformity, is the cornerstone of charters.

Rep. Bob Schaffer, who helped start a charter school in Colorado, told how the competitive process stimulated by charters helps all children in a school district. He noted how principals in his district now “are beginning to market their schools” and emphasize special features like discipline and a core curriculum.

“What makes these schools great is their autonomy,” he said. “My fear as a parent is that the federal government may love charter schools to death.” As one example, he noted that when his charter school accepted federal aid, it was ordered by the DoEd to fill its classroom seats via a lottery rather than a waiting list.

“Money is important,” said Schaffer, “but autonomy is even more important.”

Nina Shokraii Rees, senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, added what she called a “soft warning” about charter schools, while emphasizing that she appreciates the kick-start they have given school reform. It is possible, she said, that the school choice movement could see more public charter schools and fewer private schools in the mix as private-school managers convert to charters to gain access to improved funding. And that would mean decreased emphasis on the thoroughgoing reform that vouchers induce.

“Charters lessen the need for taxpayer-funded scholarships,” Rees said. “They lessen the need to create more private schools. And I fear that, in our haste to have the perfect public school system, we may forget that for all of their independence, charter schools are still ultimately ‘owned’ by the government and no government-run system can change with the changing needs of our educational system in a quick and efficient fashion.”

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].