Charter Schools Get Bipartisan Boost From U.S. House

Rep Eric Cantor (R-Va), the author of a bill to replace the No ChildLeft Behind Act, talks to a student at Two Rivers Public CharterSchool in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Kline's bill would reduce thefederal government oversight of K12 education. (Renee Schoof/MCT via Getty Images)
Rep Eric Cantor (R-Va), the author of a bill to replace the No ChildLeft Behind Act, talks to a student at Two Rivers Public CharterSchool in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Kline's bill would reduce thefederal government oversight of K12 education. (Renee Schoof/MCT via Getty Images)

Even as some question the need to increase charter school funding, the U.S. House of Representatives -- in a rare show of bipartisanship -- voted to do just that Friday.

The House voted 360-45 to approve the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, which would update the federal charter school program and push for an increase in charter school funding from $250 million to $300 million. The existing program uses a grant competition to fund the creation of entirely new public charter schools; it was initially enacted as part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

The upgrades, similar to those proposed in a House bill that passed in 2011, would combine separate federal charter school funding streams; allow charter schools receiving federal funding to give special-needs students and English language learners extra weight in admissions lotteries; and permit existing charter school chains, known as Charter Management Organizations, to receive federal funding to open new schools within their chains.

"It specifically allows for the program to expand and replicate successful models, not just fund entirely new schools," Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who sits on the House Rules Committee, told The Huffington Post.

Despite Friday's bipartisan vote, charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run, remain somewhat controversial, most recently becoming the subject of a bitter political fight in New York City. Teachers' unions, school board associations and other groups argued that the congressional legislation does not go far enough in requiring charter schools to be transparent and to serve students with disabilities and English language learners.

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the nation's two largest teachers' unions, sent the House letters calling for the bill to be stronger on charter school accountability.

AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote, "We are disheartened and discouraged when we see reports like the one released this week documenting millions of dollars in fraud, waste and abuse in the charter school sector." She encouraged the House to consider a number of amendments that she said would address this issue.

Several such amendments failed Friday, with opponents saying they put too many burdens on charter schools, which are supposed to operate with more flexibility than traditional public schools. One measure requiring the publication of charter school student performance and discipline data did pass.

Mary Kusler, the NEA's government relations director, also raised concerns about accountability. "Some provisions of the underlying bill represent improvements, such as requiring greater charter authorizer accountability, and including weighted lotteries to address under-enrollment of disadvantaged students," she wrote. "However, the underlying bill falls short in key areas: including no mandatory disclosure and reporting on key data including funding from private sources, no independent audit requirements, no open meetings requirements and no conflict of interest guidelines."

But Polis said that the new bill would improve charter school quality. "One of the complaints about charter schools is they serve a lower percentage of special-needs kids or free- and reduced-lunch kids get crowded out by upper middle class families," he said. "We allow the school to have a weighted lottery without losing eligibility. ... There's more transparency and accountability."

The congressman said that the law would also provide incentives for authorizers -- the officials who decide which charter schools are allowed to set up shop -- to establish better quality controls.

Some special education advocates are pleased. Lauren Rhim, who heads the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, said the bill strikes the right balance between pressuring charter schools to better serve disadvantaged students and being too prescriptive.

"Our concern remains if it's over-prescribed, more kids get identified as having disabilities," she said. "If the federal government said you have to have the same proportion of students with disabilities as public schools, the prize winds up being that number instead of giving kids the supports they need."

Leading up to the vote, the bill received vocal support from Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), that committee's ranking member, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

A similar bill is making its way in the U.S. Senate. It, too, has bipartisan support, including the backing of Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), two key players in education policy. But as Education Week notes, the legislation's prospects are unclear, as Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who heads the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee, has maintained that charter schools are best addressed in the context of overhauling No Child Left Behind.

“Senator Harkin supports strengthening public charter schools and included provisions in his ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] reauthorization bill to improve and update federal charter school programs," said HELP Committee press secretary Allison Preiss. "He remains committed to moving a full ESEA reauthorization bill through the Senate.”

Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association
"I will never forget my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Jordan, who found a way to redirect a tween’s excess energy into math -- and my high school math and English teachers, Mrs. Vetter and Mr. Renken, who built on my strengths and filled in the gaps. They instilled pride in me for my work and encouraged me to always do my best. Truly inspirational individuals!"
Kevin Huffman, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education
"I went to Bexley High School in Bexley, Ohio, a beautiful, small town near Columbus. Sandy Rainey was my awesome Spanish I and II teacher. She was a brand new teacher right out of college with a big heart, a passion for Don Quixote and an open door for kids like me. Mrs. Rainey was smart, cared about the world and about social justice, worked hard and had a sense of humor (which I later realized is not the easiest thing in your first year of teaching). She inspired me to keep going with Spanish -- later leading to study in South America and a first job as a bilingual elementary school teacher in Texas, which ultimately changed my whole career path. She also taught all of us to dream big and laugh along the way. Thank you, Mrs. Rainey!"
Wendy Kopp, CEO and Co-Founder of Teach for All, Founder and Chair of Teach for America
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"The teacher who most inspired me was Marvin Bressler, my undergraduate thesis adviser. He said I was 'deranged' to propose the creation of Teach For America and then set out to make it happen. But secretly he loved the idea and helped out subtly in small ways and big. He was a fountain of sage advice. Professor Bressler even connected me to Princeton’s head of development to explain just how hard it is to raise money -- though he probably knew that this gentleman would end up supporting the cause. I appreciate Professor Bressler for challenging my passion with his words, and encouraging it with his actions."
Nancy Barile, English Teacher, Member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory
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"I will never forget the day I met Ms. Liebsch in sophomore English class at Bishop Kenrick High School back in the 1970s. Ms. Liebsch wore leather boots with her skirt suits and matching cool pendants.

"I was already a voracious reader by then, and Ms. Liebsch took note immediately. She began feeding me books from her personal collection: Silas Marner, Madame Bovary, The Bell Jar. Then she would ask me for my opinions on what I had read -- and she actually listened to me. We had conversations. She was the first teacher I had who empowered me as a woman and a learner. I am quite certain I wouldn’t be a teacher today if it weren’t for Ms. Liebsch."
Jose Vilson, Math Teacher, Blogger, Author
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"I had many teachers who inspired me throughout my career, but the one I'd like to show appreciation for is Mrs. Dee Kittany, my high school choir teacher. She didn't teach me in any specific subjects, but, as the chorus coordinator, she helped me understand and use my voice in ways I didn't fully appreciate until I got older. She believed in me from the minute I tried out. Even though I didn't always perform well, she hung on to me as cantor (the lead singer), hoping that I would break through. At the last concert of my senior year, I finally broke out with a good performance.

"I didn't take up choir for the rest of my life, but I now use my voice in other, equally powerful ways, and still for a higher cause. And I have Mrs. Kittany to thank for that."
Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
"The teacher who changed my life was Joanne Hendrick -- the first person to truly challenge me. She made me work really hard to succeed in her class, and she inspired me to pursue my dream of becoming an early childhood teacher."
Sean McComb, English Teacher, 2014 National Teacher of the Year
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"Brian Reagan, a television production teacher at Upper Merion Area High School, was one of my teacher heroes. At a difficult time in my life, he believed in and valued me. He allowed my passion for sports to light my creativity and engage me in school work. More than that, he was a role model who showed me the kind of man I wanted to be: caring, joyful and generous. Mr. Reagan helped me see abilities in myself that I didn’t know were there, and modeled how I could put them to use doing the same for others."
Elisa Villanueva Beard, Co-CEO of Teach For America
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"This Teacher Appreciation Week, I’m thinking about Mr. Trevino -- one of the toughest teachers I’ve ever had. Mr. Trevino taught my 11th-grade English class, and he set the highest bar I’d seen yet. He asked us to read more rigorous texts and produce more complex writing than anyone had expected of us before. I was intimidated. I was challenged. And eventually, I was incredibly grateful. I really struggled my first year in college, but it was my writing skills -- honed in Mr. Trevino’s class -- that gave me the confidence to keep with it. He pushed me to be great. He believed I could be great -- until I believed it, too."
David Coleman, College Board President and CEO
"Mary Rooney was one of my great teachers and remains a close friend. Mrs. Rooney taught English Language Arts at public school IS70 in NYC, a remarkably diverse school at the time. She taught us how to explicate a poem, to write long stories, to command grammar. She was the perfect combination of forbidding and warm that called on us all to work harder than we had done before, and surprise ourselves by what we could then do. Mrs. Rooney stayed after school every day to run a homework help group so that students from all backgrounds could do her demanding work and thrive. She opened worlds, and all her students, from all walks of life, remember her."
Patrick Finley, Co-Principal of Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School
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"While most teachers viewed me as a troublemaker in elementary school, my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Morris, saw something different in me. In her class, for the first time I felt like a teacher was more interested in finding out what motivated me than trying to keep me quiet with worksheets. She gave me chances to use my voice and creatively looked for ways to hook me into lessons. So when we opened our school a few years ago, I wrote a letter to Mrs. Morris to thank her for her patience and inspiration. Although it had been 30 years, she remembered me and took the time not only to write back, but also enclosed a few pictures of our class because that's who she is -- a lifelong teacher who loves her kids and the time that she spent with them."
Michelle Rhee, Founder and CEO of StudentsFirst
"Mary Weiss showed me what a great teacher can do and is responsible for putting the thought in my head, for the first time, that I might become a teacher.

"She was not my teacher, per se. She was my 10th-grade boyfriend’s mom. But she took me under her wing, inviting me into her classroom during the spring of my senior year in high school, where I would help students read, work on math problems and provide one-on-one time to children who needed a little extra attention.

"Mrs. Weiss was someone who did not need to work. And she certainly did not need to travel into the troubled neighborhoods of inner-city Toledo, Ohio, every day. But for her, teaching was a calling. She volunteered to teach at the school in the rough part of town. 'I want to make a difference in my students’ lives,' she told me.

"What I learned most from Mrs. Weiss -- and the seed planted in my mind during high school that continues to guide my work today -- is this: 'I have the same expectations for all my students,' she said to me. 'Each one is capable of doing anything. I want them all to be somebody.' Regardless of whether a child is rich or poor, no matter what level of education their parents’ received or what ZIP code they were born in, every child has the ability to achieve amazing things -- that’s a truth I learned first from Mary Weiss."

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