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Lots of Love, But Also Questions for Charter Schools

Yesterday, I said that the House Committee on Education and Labor was likely to be able to come together on a bipartisan basis to embrace the proliferation of good charter schools. (This was also the very first hearing this year on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.)

And, as expected, there was a lot of praise for charter schools at the committee's hearing today and for the the potential of charters to serve as laboratories to improve public schools, tailor services to students with a range of learning needs, and emphasize subjects (like science) that sometimes get short-shrift in traditional public schools.

But it seems that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are focusing not just on how they can expand good charter schools. They're also looking at how Congress can make sure the expansion of charters goes hand-in-hand with quality and help ensure that special populations have access to good charter schools.

In his opening statement, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, who has traditionally been a cheerleader for charters, said these schools can be better equipped to engage parents, provide extended learning time, and encourage effective teaching than many traditional public schools.

But he added that, while many charter schools are doing "outstanding things," others aren't effective and need to be "shut down." And he said that charter schools, for all their potential, are not "a silver bullet."

Lawmakers also expressed concern about the fact that many charter schools don't tend to serve certain special populations, such as students in special education and English-language learners, in the same proportions as do traditional public schools.

Thomas Hehir, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied the issue, recommended in his testimony that states should be required to submit their authorizing regulations for charters to their Departments of Education for approval, to make sure that the needs of special populations are being met.

And he said the feds should establish a technical assistance center to help charter schools work with special populations, and should finance research on the topic. (Check out his testimony and other hearing materials here.)

The hearing was the very first on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but there was almost no discussion of the sticky issues at the heart of that debate, such as how to overhaul the accountability system at the heart of the law's current version.

A charter bill by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, that formed the basis for the hearing could be rolled into ESEA or passed on a standalone basis. Check out this fact sheet and this summary by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. (Page 3 notes that there is language in the bill stating that charter authorizers explain their strategy for serving special populations, such as students in special education.)

Interestingly, no one mentioned President Obama's proposal to make receipt of Title I funding contingent on states adopting college- and career-ready standards, either by working with their institutions of higher education or joining with the Common Core State Standards Initiative being spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association. Maybe it's still too new for detailed reaction.

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