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House Gives Bipartisan Stamp of Approval to Charter Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives took what has become a rare step today: It passed an education bill with broad bipartisan support. The vote, on charter school legislation, was an overwhelming vote of 365 to 54 —but there was still a lot of drama behind the scenes.

The measure is one of a number of small, targeted bills the House will consider in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka the No Child Left Behind Act. It would allow states to tap federal funds to replicate charter school models that a proven track record of success.

In the past federal charter laws were "really focused on growing new models, and that was very appropriate when the charter movement was getting launched," said Alice Johnson Cain, the vice-president for external relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington. "Twenty years in, we have a good sense of what the effective schools are." She said the bill would encourage "replication and expansion of models we know work."

The bill would also encourage charter schools and traditional public schools to learn from each other. And it would help charters gain access to high-quality facilities; advocates say charters are often stuck in some of the least desirable buildings. It also would encourage states to work with charters to help serve special populations, such as students in special education. (For more, check out this fact sheet from the House education committee.)

The floor speeches on the bill showed a lot of bipartisan love.

"Charter schools are a valuable part of our efforts to improve the education available to our children," U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said during floor debate. "I am very pleased that members of the Education and Workforce Committee have put their differences aside and worked through a very bipartisan process to develop an exceptional piece of legislation."

"Both sides of the aisle have strong proponents of this legislation and of the charter school movement in this country," U.S. Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the committee, said in floor debate.

But, off stage, some education advocates were anxiously watching the vote on an amendment, introduced by U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, which would have suspended the requirement that charter schools disaggregate their student data. For instance, charters would not have had to show how English-language learners, students in special education, or racial minorities were performing compared with the rest of the students at their schools.

The amendment was ultimately defeated on a vote of 374 to 43.

The amendment might not sound like a big deal, since it only dealt with charters, which are a relatively small percentage of public schools. But advocates considered it a test of what the new, much more conservative House thinks of the disaggregation of student data, which is at the heart of NCLB's accountability system.

Kline and Miller were united in their opposition to King's amendment.

"The King amendment would strike critical language from the underlying legislation, and could allow charter schools to mask the achievements of subgroups of students in order to receive federal funding," said Kline's spokeswoman, Alexandra Sollberger, in an e-mail.

Miller circulated a letter, urging his colleagues to reject the amendment, calling the provision "a poison pill."

A number of education organizations that supported the bill also sent a letter opposing the amendment.

The House also rejected, on a vote of 220 to 195, an amendment that would have given priority to charters that want to become "greener" in doling out school facilities money.

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