If there is one education-related issue that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on, it's charter schools. The House last week easily passed legislation to update the nation's 14-year-old charter school program, which would give more power to states and local communities to promote charter schools and add more incentives for quality. The bill would consolidate two federal funding streams and increase the annual allotment for the entire program from $250 million to $300 million annually. A similar measure was introduced in the Senate last week. Both bills are bipartisan.
"This is an example of a bill that has gotten better every step of the way," said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., on the House floor. Polis, who founded two charter schools before he came to Congress, said he understands first-hand how charter schools' "freedom to innovate" in terms of scheduling, instruction, time on task, etc., changes the landscape for public education generally.
Not everyone is happy about the bill. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., protested that it favors states that don't have caps on charter schools. He argued that the federal government shouldn't have that kind of power over states.
Still, it was a rare moment of bipartisan comity in a House that spent most of its time last week squabbling over Benghazi, former IRS official Lois Lerner, and even budget technicalities on tax extenders.
Charter schools, it would seem, have grown up. They have become more familiar to the public than when they first appeared on the scene some 20 years ago. Today, about 2 million students attend charter schools.
But there is still a lot to discuss about charter schools. There are 600,000 students on wait lists, Polis said. (That number is debatable, as students often apply to multiple charter schools.) Also, the concern that charter schools take students away from the traditional public schools still resonates. The very freedom that charter schools utilize to innovate also opens the door to mismanagement. I was struck by this cynical take by a teacher on how to make money on charter schools. The students are profit-makers! It's a scary read.
I predict there will be nothing but a growth in charter schools over the next several decades, but most educators would say that's only a good thing if they are accomplishing the same things, and more, as traditional public schools. But how do you measure their performance? That's a tough enough question for traditional schools, let alone schools that are supposed to be free to experiment. This opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution makes a compelling argument about why it makes no sense to evaluate and compare these schools. But with 2 million students and counting, most people would agree there needs to be some assurance that these kids are all getting the essentials.
Even charter school authorizing is evolving. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers put out their annual report last week, which noted the differences in how authorizers evaluate charter school applicants. NACSA lists 12 practices that it says are "essential to authorizing." They include interviewing the applicant, using expert panels to review the applications, and giving an annual report to schools on their performance. Yet a lot of charter school authorizers do not use these "essential" practices. Almost half of the authorizers surveyed by NACSA said they don't use expert panels, about one-third said they don't provide annual reports, and 30 percent said they don't interview applicants.
Authorizers, like the charter schools themselves, have a wide berth. That's probably a good thing, but it might be worth keeping score on all these fronts as the movement continues to grow.
For our insiders: How have charter schools changed the public school system in the last 20 years? What are the best characteristics of charter schools? The worst? Does the legislation pending in Congress go far enough? What can be done about the kids who want to get in to a charter school but can't? What can the federal government or states do to ensure high quality charter schools? Are they doing enough of that now?
(Note: This is a moderated blog on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. If you want to be a regular commenter, contact me.)
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