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Bipartisan Charter, Research Bills Sail Through House Education Committee

After months of gridlock on a range of K-12 issues, the House education panel gave swift, bipartisan approval Tuesday to two education bills. One, a reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act, is aimed at making education research more timely, relevant, and accessible. It was approved by a quick, unanimous vote. 

The other, a charter school bill, is aimed at growing more high-quality charters and encouraging them to better serve students with disabilities and English-language learners. That bill also won swift approval, but not before a number of committee Democrats lambasted charter schools for siphoning off resources from other public schools—before voting for the legislation anyway. The bill passed 36 to 3. 

The passage of two bipartisan pieces of legislation in itself is a big deal. Congress has a lengthy logjam when it comes to education legislation. With movement stalled—for now—on big, politically charged pieces of legislation, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, lawmakers instead are tackling more-targeted issues where it's easier to garner bipartisan support. What's more, the bills come on the heels of an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the U.S. Senate on legislation to renew the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act.

There was plenty of cross-aisle fist-bumping at the markup. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, the Democratic author of the measure, called the research bill a "shining example" of what bipartisan collaboration can achieve. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, said both bills were "an easy yes" vote. 

The charter school bill is similar to legislation that passed the House with broad, bipartisan support back in 2011. It would combine two main federal programs for charters, meshing together grants to help charter school developers open new schools, with money to help charters find and fix up facilities. And the bill would make it easier for charter organizations with a track record of success to open more schools. 

What's new this time around: The bill would allow districts to give students with disabilities, English-learners, and other disadvantaged groups a leg up in charter lotteries. And it would make it easier for a student who has graduated from one charter school (for instance, an elementary school) to enroll in an affiliated school (for example, a middle school) without having to go back through a lottery. The charter school bill would also officially bless a competition that's already been underway at the U.S. Department of Education, allowing the federal government to allocate grants directly to charter management organizations—groups like KIPP or Aspire. That would help charter school operators expand even in some states that aren't superwelcoming to charter schools. 

The money for the new competition would come out of a relatively small portion of federal charter funding—the bill sets aside about 10 percent of federal financing for charter schools for so-called "national activities." Charter management organizations would be eligible to go after a significant chunk of that funding.

The fund is an "acknowledgement that some states either have an anti-charter school political dynamic or have regional challenges that prevent them from providing high-quality charter schools where they are most needed," said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., a charter school fan who helped to champion the new competition, in an interview before the markup. 

Polis is a big supporter of charter schools, but not all of his colleagues share his enthusiasm. Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., bemoaned the fact that the bill doesn't require charter schools to hold open meetings, a criticism also levied by the National Education Association.

And Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said that charters siphon off resources from traditional public schools. She even went so far as to say that charter schools are leading the country "back to a time before Brown vs. the Board of Education." Still, only three Democrats voted against the legislation: Reps. Tim Bishop of New York, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, and Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio.  All of the Republicans voted in favor of it. 

"I concede that not everyone is as enthusiastic about the successes of charter schools as I am, or perhaps Mr. Miller" is, Kline said. But he said in visiting some high-quality charter schools in his home state, "it's easy to see why they have waiting lists of a thousand." 

The NEA didn't take a position on the bill. Mary Kusler, the union's director of government relations, called it an improvement on current law, but said it needed to go much further in areas including financial disclosure.  But the American Association of School Administrators came out against the bill. "We have this crazy idea that all entities receiving public dollars should face the same accountability, flexibility and transparency requirements," the group wrote on its website. 

Meanwhile, the research bill was approved on a swift vote vote. It would renew ESRA, the law that governs the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department's research arm. The legislation makes changes to the grant program for statewide data systems, allowing districts and states to collaborate on the grants.

The bill calls for new or improved collection of data in areas such as high school graduation rates, school safety, discipline, and teacher preparation and evaluation. It would also add a new focus on examining the implementation of a particular policy or strategy, not just its impact. And it would give educators a stronger voice in setting research policy, including calling for educators to serve on the National Board of Education Sciences, as well as have a beefed-up role in peer review. 

Negotiations on ESRA temporarily stalled last year, when Democrats and Republicans were unable to come to quick agreement on authorization levels. But that issue was resolved, thanks in part to a bipartisan budget agreement that sets general spending levels for the federal government for two years. 

So what's next for both bills? Kline said he'd like the full House to consider ESRA soon, likely on the "suspension calendar" which allows for limited amendments and debate. The move is typically used for bills that have broad, bipartisan support. (The decision will ultimately be up to Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who controls the House floor schedule.) The measure could be on the floor by the end of the month, advocates say. 

And the charter school bill is slated to be on the floor the week of May 5, which just happens to be National Charter School week, a Cantor spokeswoman said. 

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