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Bill Aims to Boost Growth of High-Quality Charter Schools; Cross-Aisle Support Seen

States and districts would be encouraged to help grow high-quality charter schools—and ensure that they enroll and retain English-language learners and students in special education—under a rare, bipartisan bill introduced Tuesday by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the panel.

Under the measure, the two main federal programs for charter schools would be consolidated, combining federal grants to help charter school developers open new schools, with money to help charters find and fix up facilities. Overall, it calls for $300 million a year in federal funding for charters, a little more than the roughly $250 million the current Charter School Grants program received in the most recent budget, for fiscal year 2014, which started back on Oct. 1.

The revamped program would provide incentives for states to help develop charter schools and make it easier for those who operate charters with a track record of success to open more schools. Right now, charter operators can get federal grants to open new schools, but not to expand existing, successful models.

The bill closely mirrors legislation, also supported by Kline and Miller, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives by broad, bipartisan margins back in 2011, as well as the charter portion of a broader bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which only garnered GOP support. Neither bill ever made it to the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The big difference in this new piece of legislation: The bill would create a grant program to help Charter Management Organizations (think KIPP or Aspire) open new charter schools. That's something U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supports.

And the bill makes it clear that states can use so-called "weighted lotteries," meaning that they can give preference to low-income students, racial minorities, and other disadvantaged children in admissions. That's something the administration has also been pushing. In addition, it would allow students who graduate from one charter school (say, an elementary school) to enroll in an affiliated school (say, a middle school) without having to go back through a lottery.

Advocates for charter schools gave the legislation a big thumbs-up, including the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. And some advocates for students with disabilities—a group that many argue has been ignored by the charter sector—are also on board, including the Council for Exceptional Children and the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association, a 3-million member teachers' union, said the bill doesn't go far enough when it comes to beefing up accountability measures for charter schools.

The bill "falls short of safeguards needed in the two-decade-old charter sector," she said. For instance, she explained, the bill doesn't require charters that get private money to disclose how much and who it is from. (That's something state and federal laws for non-profit organizations often govern, but Kusler argued that disclosure laws vary state by state.) It also doesn't require charters to have the same open-meetings laws as other public schools.

Still, Kusler sees the bill, overall, as an improvement on current federal laws governing charter accountability. For instance, she likes a provision that would call for states to spell out their oversight plans for charter school authorizers.

The charter school bill could be considered by the House education committee as early as next week. 

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