Federal bill attempts to help replicate high-quality state charter schools

Part 85 of 85 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Charter school proponents have voiced support for a federal bill, calling the legislation “a set of common-sense sort of updates” to the current federal charter school program.

A federal bill would help replicate high-performing charter schools.

“It takes one of the most effective programs within the federal department of education budget and fine-tunes it to make it better,” said Don Soifer, education analyst at the Lexington Institute.

The current program provides a competitive grant, allowing some startup charter schools to receive federal funding for three years. To receive the grant, schools must demonstrate likelihood of student success.

“The most important part (of the bill), they change the federal program to support replicating and expanding high quality charter schools. That’s a real important lesson learned of the whole charter school experience,” Soifer said.

One advantage to the program is it builds on state law without forcing states into any kind of obligation or requirement, Soifer said. Instead, it simply provides funding for states running their own charter school programs.

Minnesota passed the first charter school law in the early 1990s and opened the nation’s first charter school in 1992. Today, 42 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. George Miller and U.S. Rep. John Kline, chairman of the house education and workforce committee, would formally create a federal grant program for replicating and expanding high-quality charter school and notes that charter schools are permitted to admit students by weighted lotteries, giving preference to disadvantaged students.

“Charter schools play an integral part in our public education system,” Miller said in a statement. “In many ways, these innovative schools have been teaching us what is possible when it comes to educating kids — and the work of charter schools helps break down many of the stereotypes that often plague kids who happen to be from the wrong zip code.”

Nina Rees, president and CEO of National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, lauded the move in a statement.

“Many of our nation’s most successful charter schools would not have been able to open their doors without the support of the federal charter schools program, and we are grateful for this opportunity to increase that support,” she said.

Federal funding for charter schools receives a disproportionate amount of controversy, Soifer said. It’s one of the few federally funded education programs that has proven results, he argues.

As long as the federal government has a department of education, Soifer said, charter schools ought to receive support.

“An intelligent policy conversation about the size and scope of the federal departments involved in education is entirely appropriate,” he said, “but within that, charter schools make up a very small part and a relatively useful part, and I think that should be considered.”

Other programs could use some more controversy, he said. He referred to Title I, a federal program aimed to give an academic boost to children coming from low-income families.

“There’s a lot of research on it,” he said. “The effectiveness of Title I overall is widely pointed to as an expensive program with an important goal that has not produced the sorts of academic results and outcomes it was created for.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.