A bipartisan bill that would continue to fund the growth of high-quality charter schools sailed through the House on Friday, just hours after the chamber also passed a bill to expand education research programs – a sign the logjam facing major education legislation could be subsiding.
The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act – a bill introduced by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman and ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Comittee – passed on a 360-45 vote. It would streamline two existing charter school programs, combine grants to open new schools and renovate facilities, and ask that the program, currently funded at $250 million -- be reauthorized at $300 million, which is the current authorization level.
For far too many children in our country, a quality education remains out of reach and kids without access to a quality of education struggle to even see any opportunity to get ahead."
"Fortunately, we have a chance today to bring more opportunities to students all over America who are looking for that chance to learn, to grow and to succeed," Cantor said.
Amendments to the bill approved on Friday include provisions to ensure foster and homeless youths do not face barriers to enrolling at charter schools, to require states to report on how they've worked with charter schools to foster community involvement, and to task the Government Accountability Office with reporting on whether the amount of funding for state administrative costs is appropriate.
"It is simple and straightforward, ensuring the millions of taxpayer dollars will go to classrooms, not caught up in bureaucracy," said Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who wrote the amendment on administrative costs. "We all know how easy it is for administrative costs in the public sector to balloon. This amendment helps to prevent this from happening."
Although Congress hasn't as of late made substantial progress on the two outdated major education governance laws – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act – the House voted late Thursday to pass the Strengthening Education through Research Act, which would reauthorize the Institute of Education Sciences.And on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators – Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. – introduced their own version of the charter school legislation: the Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act.
Following the House vote, Alexander praised the approval and encouraged his colleagues to take similar action on the bill he proposed.
"The House action on charter schools helps states give teachers more freedom and children more choices of schools," Alexander said in a statement. "With such strong, bipartisan support there is no reason not to enact a law this year that will help millions of children."
Still, some education leaders are hesitant to fully back the proposed legislation. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, joined several charter school leaders from across the country in writing a letter to Congress, urging lawmakers to adopt proposed amendments to the House bill that would enhance accountability and transparency.
"We know that when public charters are held to the same standards of accountability, equitable access and transparency as traditional public schools, all our students receive a better education," the letter says. "But when public charters are not held to these standards, student learning suffers and taxpayer money is wasted."
The group pointed to a report released Monday that claimed charter school operators in 15 states were responsible for "losing, misusing or wasting over $100 million in taxpayer money."
"All institutions that receive public education dollars should be held to the same high standards, and we urge you to support improvements to this legislation that would ensure better financial oversight of charters, transparency with charter finances, and equitable access for and treatment of all students," the teachers continue in their letter.
One amendment to increase the accountability and transparency of charter schools – from Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla. – failed to pass. It would have required Education Secretary Arne Duncan to develop and enforce conflict-of-interest guidelines for any charter school receiving funds under the bill.
"The conflict-of-interest problems afflicting charter schools across the country endanger the outstanding work being done by many charter schools," Castor said Friday. "If charter schools are going to effectively carry out their mission for students using public funds, it is clear we need more accountability and better procedures in place to protect taxpayer investments."
But Kline strongly opposed the amendment, saying it would be a federal overreach and that the bill sufficiently addresses concerns about conflicts of interest.e do not need the secretary of education getting more involved in these schools by layering on more burdensome requirements. These are issues best addressed at the state and local level, and the underlying bill already provides support for these efforts."
The American Association of School Administrators came out in opposition of the House bill, stating that while it is an improvement to current law, it lacks the necessary requirements to ensure federal dollars are being spent well. The group urged legislators to vote against the bill, even if certain amendments were adopted.
"To the extent that this bill affords charter schools flexibilities that are not available to traditional schools, it is inequitable," a letter from the group says. "To the extent that charter schools do not have to disclose the source/amount of private money, it is not transparent."
The organization said that rather than amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – also known as No Child Left Behind – as the charter school bill would do, legislators should look for a way to come to a bipartisan agreement on updating the sweeping education law.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., also urged her colleagues to work to reauthorize No Child Left Behind and called on them to place additional focus on improving traditional public schools, not just charter schools. Her amendment, which was passed, clarifies reporting requirements by asking states to include efforts to share best practices between charter schools and traditional public schools.
"We should also be focused on the sharing of best practices, and we should be especially focused on what we’re getting out of it," Bonamici said.
Clarified on May 13, 2014: House Bill HR10 is a reauthorization of an existing program and, as such, does not request additional funds for that charter schools. Though the program had previously been authorized at $300 million, it was currently funded at $250 million; the bill requested reauthorization at $300 million.