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Charters: Allies Join Critics Demanding Quality Upgrades

image from blogs.edweek.orgIn case you hadn't heard there's a big charter conference going on in Atlanta (AJCEdWeek).  The House Republicans have conveniently revamped the federal charter school law at the same time.  There are even some of those controversial Harmony charters on the new Newsweek best high schools list.  There's a big push to create more charters (thanks to Team Duncan's mystifying focus on charter expansion in Race To The Top).  But it's still unclear to me what kind of a future role charters have going forward, given the unaddressed issues surrounding quality -- as well as cost and self-sufficiency concerns and the seeming lack of any real impact on the rest of the public education system. I'm generally pro-change, and perfectly fine with the idea of charter schools, but, two years after studies showed us that charters might be popular with parents, and safe, but weren't much better academically there's STILL no real movement on quality issues --just lots of talk. Indeed, one of the most pro-charter groups out there, Democrats for Education Reform, this morning issued a list of concerns about the House charter bill focusing mostly on quality (see below). I get that charters have helped a lot of kids, and brought a lot of energy and talent into public education.  I don't want that to go away.  But operators and authorizers don't seem able or willing to police themselves, and reformers seem afraid to criticize what's become a powerful stakeholder group.  Me, I want so much more from charters than we're currently getting.  Twenty years in and billions of dollars and so much media hype, there should, frankly, be more. 

June 22nd 2011 (WASHINGTON, D.C.) Contact: Charlie Barone (202) 674-3020 H.R. 2218 - "EMPOWERING PARENTS THROUGH QUALITY CHARTER SCHOOLS" - IS A GOOD STEP FORWARD BUT CLOCK IS TICKING ON OTHER ESSENTIAL - AND OVERDUE - EDUCATION REFORMS Democrats for Education Reform strongly supports the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 2218) that will be marked up today in the House Education and Workforce Committee. H.R. 2218 includes important provisions that allow high-quality public charter schools to serve more students and that incentivize states to expand and replicate high-performers. The bill also rightly compels states to ensure that public charter schools meet their obligations to English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and makes important improvements with regard to reporting, oversight, and accountability. “Right now in Atlanta, thousands of public charter school parents, teachers, and administrators from across the country sharing what they have learned and to chart their course for the future,” said Charles Barone, DFER Director of Federal Policy of the National Charter Schools Conference where President Clinton, who signed the first federal school bill into law spoke spoke yesterday and was given a hero's welcome. “The charter school movement is made-up of the most can-do, have done, group of parents, teachers, and school reformers you're ever likely to meet. Only the wrong-headed or hard-hearted would do anything other than give them as much help and support as humanly possible.” We are disappointed that the bill lowers the authorized funding levels for programs under the federal Charter Schools Program from the $450 million in current law. We do, however, appreciate that the $300 million authorization in H.R. 2218 is at least higher than the current $256 million in actual funding. While it would take a much higher increase to serve all children across the country who are on charter school waiting lists, we appreciate this small step forward and hope to work with Congress throughout the legislative process to ensure that we do as much as possible to reach our shared goal of giving all parents the choice of sending their child to a high-quality public school. We do have some additional concerns that we believe should be addressed as the bill makes its way through the legislative process. Our main concern with H.R. 2218 is in regard to the uneven quality of state charter school authorizers. The bill itself recognizes this issue as improving the authorization process is one of its main goals. We likewise have serious doubts about the ability or willingness of some states to monitor and maintain the quality of charter schools that receive grants through this bill, at least until its provisions take full effect. For example, in Ohio, long known as the “wild west” of charter school authorizing, Governor Kasich is right now pushing policies that focus mainly on expansion and that allow chronically low-performing charter schools to continue to operate. We are seeing a similar lack of oversight in other states. This is an injustice to children and a disservice to taxpayers, especially in this time of scarce state and local education funding. It should be remembered that it was the U.S. Congress and President Obama that in 2010 first set aside $50 million to fund the expansion and replication of high-quality public charter schools. The result is that barely a year later, 76,000 more students attend 127 new and 31 expanded public charter schools in a dozen charter school networks nation-wide. In contrast, there is nothing in HR 2218 that really requires any state to pay much more than lip service to high-quality charter expansion and replication. We hope that, as the bill moves forward, Congress reconsiders the possibility of maintaining the national competition approach given its demonstrated success and integrity. Also, while we are strong supporters of high-quality charter schools, we do not believe that they are the only or even the primary means for ensuring that every child in the U.S has the opportunity to a high-quality education. In fact, we think game-changing, systemic reform can only come about through a combination of strategies that include: raising academic standards, improving assessments, overhauling teacher preparation, establishing rigorous teacher evaluation policies, reforming tenure, and providing bonus pay to teachers who teach in high need schools and subjects and rewarding those who are most effective in educating the most at-risk students. It is for these reasons that we are disappointed in the House’s slow pace on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind. After more than 9 years of inaction, we urge you to redouble your efforts to comprehensively update and modernize federal education policy via a full ESEA/NCLB reauthorization bill before the end of the 112th Congress.

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