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Bipartisan Charter Bill Clears House Education Committee

States would be encouraged to create more, high-quality charter schools under a measure that got a bipartisan stamp of approval from the House Education and the Workforce Committee today.

The bill, which was approved 31 to 5, is the second in a series of measures that would be included in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka the No Child Left Behind Act). The panel is breaking its renewal effort into what it sees as small, targeted pieces, to avoid a repeat of what Congress faced with the health care overhaul law, which was criticized for being too long.

The charter measure is the first piece of legislation to get Democratic support, including from Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. the top Democrat on the panel, who has long been a huge fan of charter schools. The committee's last ESEA renewal bill, which would slash more than 40 programs in the U.S. Department of Education, was approved by a party-line vote on the Republican-controlled panel.

By contrast, Miller and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the panel, talked up the bipartisan nature of the charter measure.

"There is bipartisan agreement that supporting the development of high-quality charter schools is a worthwhile endeavor," Kline said.

"I am encouraged by many aspects of the bill we're discussing today," said Miller. "This is truly bipartisan legislation."

Still, it's an open question whether the measure is a harbinger of many more bipartisan ESEA bills to come, or just a brief, feel-good moment before the fighting starts up. (Right now, Kline and Miller are working to come to a bipartisan agreement on a funding flexibility bill, a much stickier issue. One not-so-hot sign? The Democrats say the charter bill was the first ESEA bill the committee has passed, while the Republicans call it the second.)

And not everyone likes this bill. Five Democrats (out of 17 on the panel) voted against it including two who just came off tough elections, Reps. Tim Bishop, of New York, and David Loebsack, of Iowa.

The National Education Association isn't a fan of the bill, either. In fact, the union sent a letter to members of the House education committee, dissing the legislation, in part because, in the union's view, it doesn't require enough financial transparency. The NEA also says it isn't clear in the bill that charters are subject to the same accountability requirements as other public schools.

The charter community, on the other hand, is generally supportive of the bill. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools endorsed it, with caveats. The organization likes that the bill would support the creation of more charter schools. But the Alliance expressed some misgivings about the authorization level (which is Congress-speak for language in the bill that suggests a particular spending levels).

When this bill was first introduced last week, it wasn't bipartisan yet.

Lawmakers added language calling on states to explain how they would serve special populations, including English-language learners and students in special education. That helped win Democratic support, but Republicans liked the language, too. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who oversees the subcommittee on K-12 policy, highlighted the provision in his remarks.

As for specifics, this bill would:

• Allow states to apply for competitive grants to set up new charter schools, or expand and replicate high-quality charters. That's a change from current law, which just allows states to use the funds for new charters, or to share information.

• Make it more likely that states that are following what Congress considers "best practices" when it comes to charters get the grants.

• Call on states to keep an eye on the overall performance of charters, including progress in boosting student achievement.

• Extend the period the period of charter grants to five years, from three .

• Authorize $300 million for charter grants and charter facilities. Right now, the grants are authorized at $300 million, and the facilities piece is $150 million. So this is a cut in the suggested spending level for charters overall. Sometimes Congress follows those suggested levels in spending bills, sometimes not. Right now, Congress is spending about $255 million total on charters.

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