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U.S. House Committee Convenes Wide-Ranging Hearing on Charters

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A wide variety of subjects—including how to close failing charter schools, how charter schools are funded, and how to ensure high-quality charter school authorizing—were discussed at a hearing convened by the House education committee today.

Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., highlighted the work of charter schools like YES Prep in Memphis, which has made gains toward its goal of improving college-going rates among its students. He also used the opportunity to promote the Student Success Act—the House's rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known more colloquially by its most recent name, No Child Left Behind) which passed last June. 

Committee members pressed a panel of witnesses on ways of maintaining high-quality charter school options and how to close charter schools that aren't working.

Lisa Graham Keegan, the representative from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA, said that Americans have learned much in the past twenty years about how to make charter school successful, and that it is usually clear within the first two years of a charter school's existence whether or not it will fulfill its promise. She also said that it takes at least 18 months to shut down a failing charter school.

"With the help or organizations like NACSA, we can make sure [authorizers] have the laws and regulations they need to have in place to quickly close these schools down," she said, for both academic and financial reasons. As part of its One Million Lives campaign, which seeks to open high-quality charters and shut down failing ones, NASCA anticipates that the rate of charter school closures over the next few years will be high, but added that her organization will "get in the business of only starting excellent schools," thereby decreasing the number of charter school closures. 

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, from Denver Public Schools, talked about the collaboration between charter and district-run schools that is taking place within her school district. She highlighted examples of the way that some of the charter school best practices—such as extending the learning day and school year—have taken hold in the district as a whole. She also acknowledged making improvements to the district's co-location policies, which allow charter schools to share space with other traditional or charter schools there.

"It's working well in part because we learned from some of our early experiences," she said. Almost 80 percent of the charter schools in Denver Public Schools are located in district owned or operated facilities, she said.

But Rep. Timothy Bishop, D-N.Y., pushed back on the expansion of charters, questioning whether funding for such schools should be increased when about 95 percent of public school students are educated in traditional schools. "Why are we moving headlong into the support of charter schools at the expense of district schools?" he asked the panel. "Is that the right public policy choice?"

Alan Rosskamm, the chief executive officer of Breakthrough Schools, a network of charters in Cleveland, Ohio, argued that "it's a fabulous return on investment to replicate what's working." Those funds should be spend to bolster proven, innovative ways of educating the neediest students, he said.

Members of the panel encouraged federal lawmakers to continue funding the Charter School Program, which administers start-up grants for eligible charter schools, as well as a credit-enhancement program for charter schools that makes it easier for them to apply for loans for facilities and related capital expenses. 

Witnesses at the hearing also included Deborah McGriff, the chair of the board for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and David Linzey, the executive director 
of the Clayton Valley Charter High School 
in Concord, Calif.

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