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National PTA Favors Expanding 'Charter Approval' Power

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From Guest Blogger Sean Cavanagh

The National Parent Teacher Association has revamped its policy to make it clear that it supports giving entities other than local school boards the right to approve charter schools, a new position the group argues will increase its ability to shape policy within the diverse and growing sector of independent public schools.

Leaders of the National PTA, an advocacy organization with 5 million members, say their goal is to remain relevant in discussions about charter schools by recognizing those schools' role in today's education system and by focusing more intently on improving their quality and oversight.

But it seems that not everyone is on board with the change in philosophy.

A state chapter of the organization, the Georgia PTA, is opposing a ballot measure that will go to voters in November to set up a state-level commission to approve charters. That puts the Georgia chapter at odds with the new national policy, according to the parent organization, which is trying to resolve the issue and to persuade state officials to remain neutral on the matter. The proposed amendment to the state's constitution would give the commission the power to create charters over the objections of local school districts.

The National PTA describes itself as the largest volunteer child-advocacy organization in the country. Jacque Chevalier, a senior policy strategist at the national organization, said it is encouraging Georgia officials to avoid taking a stance on the issue that contradicts the national policy.

"We hope we can reach a conclusion that's mutually beneficial," Ms. Chevalier said. "We're working through it right now." She declined to say what would happen if the dispute is not resolved.

Transparency and Oversight

The new position statement was approved by the National PTA's board of directors on Aug. 9. It represents the first change to that policy since 1995, when the charter schools movement was in its infancy.

On first reading, the changes in the policy seem relatively minor and straightforward.

The new statement emphasizes that both charter schools and the entities that typically create and oversee them—known as authorizers—be held to high standards. Authorizers need to regularly engage parents, review charters' performance, and hold them to contracts based on their performance, the policy says. It calls for transparency in charter schools' finances and operations and says they should neither exclude students nor divert funding from regular public schools.

The crux of the policy change comes in the deletion of previous wording that said charter schools must "be chartered by and made accountable to the state and local school boards in the districts in which they were located."

That wording had often been interpreted as limiting authorizing power to local school boards, Ms. Chevalier noted. In an Aug. 14 letter to presidents of the organization's state chapters, National PTA President Betsy Landers called their attention to the deletion, and said her organization wanted to ensure that its support "extends to all authorizing bodies and public charter schools," as long as they are held to high standards.

Ms. Landers noted that almost 50 percent of public charter schools in operation today are authorized by "alternate bodies" and that many local PTAs are already working with those entities. She urged state chapters to become familiar with the policy and make sure their state advocacy efforts complied with it, a step she said was critical to ensuring that the organization's position on charters remains relevant.

Georgia's ballot proposal has generated deep rifts across the state. The state's elected schools superintendent, John Barge, recently announced his opposition to the measure, citing concerns about the impact on regular public schools' finances, among other worries. He has been strongly criticized for that stance by Gov. Nathan Deal, a fellow Republican who backs the amendment.

Georgia PTA officials declined to comment on their apparent break with the National PTA on the issue. In a statement on the proposed constitutional amendment last month, the state organization argued that the ballot proposal would usurp local control, undermine local districts' finances, and allow for the growth of for-profit operators of charters.

"We reject the state power grab from local communities in the education of their children," the statement says, "the financial inequities, and the overt attention being given to those who intend to profit from the education of children."

Charters on the Ballot

Ms. Chevalier said that National PTA officials believe the organization's ability to advocate charter school issues, and press for improved quality in the sector, would be undermined if it was regarded as anti-charter or unwilling to consider new charter models.

"PTA has a role to play," Ms. Chevalier said. While the National PTA recognizes that the charter school landscape differs by state, and many state chapters have legitimate concerns about specific charter policies, the organization also wants to "position the brand to inform long-term discussions about charters and assist with successful implementation of them."

Adam Emerson, the director of the program on parental choice at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-charter organization in Washington, said the National PTA's change in policy is significant and could help dispel the long-standing criticism that the organization's positions are too closely aligned with teachers' unions—or that they "focus a lot more on the 'T' than on the 'P' in the name," as he put it.

"You wouldn't necessarily expect them to come across so strongly on this," Mr. Emerson said. "It's notable they've taken this step at all."

At the same time, the PTA's call for strong oversight of authorizers and charters is in keeping with the views of many backers of charter schools, Mr. Emerson added.

In Washington state, meanwhile, the state chapter of the PTA is opposing a ballot measure that would for the first time permit the establishment of charters schools. The proposal would allow a local school board or a new state commission to authorize charters. In a statement posted on the organization's website, its president, Novella Fraser, said her group opposes that measure because it "did not meet its criteria for local oversight." She said the organization is also troubled by the lack of a requirement that parents serve on charter school boards. (Washington state officials did not respond to requests for comment.)

Ms. Chevalier said the National PTA would have preferred that the Washington state organization also stay neutral on the ballot item. But she said the National PTA is sympathetic to some of the chapter's concerns about the proposed charter law, such as the lack of assurances of parent involvement, and thus the national group regards the Washington chapter's stance as more in line with the national policy than the Georgia PTA's stance.

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