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House Poised to Pass Bipartisan Charter Legislation, But Senate Future Uncertain

UPDATED

Bipartisan legislation aimed at helping charter schools with a track record of success expand their reach is expected to sail through the U.S. House of Representatives Friday. But the path for the legislation in the Senate—where lawmakers recently introduced a nearly identical bill this week—remains unclear.

The House measure was written by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. It's also gotten high-profile backing from Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House Majority Leader, a huge proponent of school choice. [UPDATE (May 9, 1:10 p.m.) The House approved the bill on a vote of 360 to 45. 

So what does the bill actually do? The measure would combine federal programs aimed at helping charter developers open new schools with money to help charters find and fix up facilities. It also includes language aimed at ensuring that charter schools enroll—and retain—students in special education and English Language Learners.

And the bill would also allow charter schools to give those students special preference in charter lotteries (that's something the administration has already encouraged). It would also create a new grant program to help proven Charter Management Organizations open new schools. (Again, that's something the administration has already been doing. But the legislation would make the program a part of federal charter law.)

The bill also authorizes some additional funding for charter schools, allowing for $300 million in federal funds. (Currently the program is financed nearly $250 million.) Even though authorizations aren't binding that sends a strong statement for a Congress bent on holding down spending.

Charter advocates say the federal charter program—which was last reauthorized along with the rest of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act back in 2001—is way overdue for an update.

Since then there's been "dramatic and exponential growth in the charter sector," said Gina Mahony, the senior vice president for government relations for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. "We want to double down on that investment and allow the high quality public charter schools that have a track record of success to continue to grow and expand."

But not everyone is in love with the legislation. The American Association of School Administrators, for one, opposes the bill because, in AASA's view, it doesn't go far enough to ensure that charters are held to the same accountability and transparency standards as other public schools.

In a perfect world, advocates say, the charter legislation would again have been part of ESEA. But the broader bill has been caught in partisan paralysis for years. The charter portion—much of which was included in an ESEA bill that passed the House last summer with only GOP support—is pretty much the one piece that seems likely to pass the House with any cross-aisle collaboration.

The question is how it will fare in the Senate. The House passed similar legislation overwhelmingly back in 2011, but the other chamber never took it up. This time around, a companion Senate bill has been introduced by Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. The two pieces of legislation have only a few key differences. The biggest: The Senate bill would steer more funding to the CMO competition. It would also give states that help charters find facilities a leg-up in competitions for federal funding.  

The Senate bill also has the backing of two key members of the Senate education committee: Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the panel, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

It's unclear, however, how enthusiastic the committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is about considering the legislation, as standalone bill, separate from the rest of ESEA. Harkin's home state of Iowa isn't fertile territory for charters, and charters have never been Harkin's signature issue. (He's working on moving an early education bill now, for instance.)  And while the House chose to break out the charter bill because, for now, it's the only bipartisan piece of the broader bill, Harkin would much rather do the whole thing at once.

"Sen. Harkin supports strengthening public charter schools and included provisions in his ESEA reauthorization bill to improve and update federal charter school programs. He remains committed to moving a full ESEA reauthorization bill through the Senate," said his spokeswoman, Allison Preiss. 

The House is set to vote on some dozen amendments, including three that have strong backing from the National Education Association. One, by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., would call for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to develop and enforce conflict of interest guidelines for anyone associated with charters that get federal funding. Another, by Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, would call for charters to detail their discipline policies, enrollment criteria, student recruitment and other information on their websites. And a third, by Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisc., calls for extra funding for state oversight of charters. More here. [UPDATE: (May 9): 1:30 p.m.] The Moore, Castor, and Jackson Lee amendments all failed to pass. 

The National Alliance of Public Charters isn't a fan of any of those amendments. Mahony argued that all three are "incredibly redundant or unnecessary." For instance, she said, financial disclosures are already required under federal law, and the federal government doesn't require any other type of public school to list the data Jackson-Lee's amendment is asking for on its website. And, she said, the bill already has strong oversight protections built in.

"We don't understand the role the state entity would be playing," she said. 

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