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As House Is Set to Consider Charter Legislation, Key Senators Write Own Bill

UPDATED

Bipartisan charter school legislation is expected to sail through the U.S. House of Representatives later this week. And now a bipartisan cadre of senators—including Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee—is slated to introduce its own, nearly identical charter bill.

The Senate measure also has the backing of Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. Like the House bill, the forthcoming Senate legislation would combine federal grants to help charter school developers open new schools, with money to help charters find and fix up facilities. And, like the House bill, 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.

Also, like the House bill, the forthcoming Senate bill would make it easier for charter school management organizations (like KIPP or Aspire) that have a track record of success to open additional schools, in part by codifying a competitive grant program that's already underway at the department. For more check out this summary of the legislation. And then compare it to the House charter bill. (My summary here, committee's here.) 

In fact, the bills mostly differ when it comes to the nitty-gritty details. For instance, the Senate legislation appears to direct a larger portion of its funding to the new charter management competition.

"We're going to build on the success of charter schools," said Landrieu, the legislation's chief Democratic sponsor. The funding in the bill would "equate to the opportunity to open or build 500 new charter schools a year," she added.

Landrieu was also upbeat about the bill's political prospects. She said she would be working with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, to schedule the bill for consideration. "He's generally been supportive our requests in the past for charter schools," she said, even if he hasn't always gone as far as Landrieu would like. "He has such a heart for kids and what works for them."

She also thinks a strong bipartisan vote out of the House—including the support of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee—will help sway Harkin. Miller "is a very well respected, more liberal voice on schools. I think his endorsement and support is going to go a long way" in rounding up Senate votes, she said.

Meanwhile, the House is likely to begin consideration of its charter bill Thursday, with final passage expected Friday. Some big names in House leadership, including Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the Majority Leader, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the whip, joined Kline and others at press conference Wednesday in support of the bill.

And 29 amendments have been introduced to the House charter school legislation, nearly all of them by Democrats. 

Miller discouraged Democrats from offering big changes to the charter school bill in committee, saying essentially that he had already gotten the items on their wish list—including provisions that call for greater scrutiny of charters and language aimed at ensuring that charters enroll and retain special populations of students, such as English-language learners and students in special education.

But Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the NEA, which supports a number of the amendments proposed for the floor, said it would be a shame not to "allow discussion on how to improve high-quality charter schools so that all students may benefit."

You can find the full list of amendments here, but here are a few to watch: 

  • A pair of amendments by Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Mike Honda, D-Calif., that would call for public disclosure of private contributions to charters, as well as a provision that requires charter school board meetings to be open and transparent to parents, educators, and the public.  Those issues have been of particular interest for the NEA. "It's very difficult to find [financial] conflicts of interest," Kusler said. She cited this report from the Economic Policy Institute in bolstering her argument.
  • An amendment by Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., that would strip out language in the bill giving states without charter caps an edge when competing for federal charter school grants. The amendment has the support of other members of the delegation from the Evergreen State, which has charter caps.
  • An amendment by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., that would require the GAO to track federal dollars provided under the bill and decide if the money allocated from administrative costs is appropriate.

Why charters now? First off, it's National Charter School Week. And second, both parties working together on education legislation creates great optics for everyone, especially with elections right around the corner. 

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