Sep 20, 2011

Empowering Parents Is An Important Step Forward [Or, We Duped Congress, Like We Dupe You!!]

The U.S. House, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, approved legislation last week that will give families more high-quality educational choices. The Empowering Parents Through Quality Charter Schools Act sailed through the House, and the Senate should follow suit and send this critical piece of legislation to President Obama as quickly as possible.

At StudentsFirst, we believe, and research has shown, that public charter schools are an important tool in closing the achievement gap between groups of students. Charter schools offer parents and students a choice when their traditional neighborhood school is not a viable option. In addition to increasing the educational opportunities available to children, charters can harness their autonomy and entrepreneurial approach to spur innovation and create a space in which teachers can grow and develop instructional techniques that truly elevate the profession.

The House legislation increases flexibility for states to use funding to help replicate successful charter schools and assist with facilities. Under this new funding framework, public charters and traditional public schools are encouraged to work, share, and innovate together. In other words, this will help great educators learn from one another. States also will have new incentives to use charter schools to reach special student populations, such as at-risk children who haven't succeeded in traditional public schools.

Importantly, the House retained provisions requiring charter schools, like all public schools, to disaggregate their student data. This critical element enables educators and families to track success and see where improvement is needed and enables policymakers and parents to hold schools accountable for educating all students.

Notably, this bill is moving ahead of other proposals under consideration as Congress moves to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, reflecting the broad support that public charter schools enjoy. Public charter schools enroll nearly 2 million students, with another 420,000 on waiting lists. More importantly, however, the Quality Charter Schools Act shifts the federal focus to replicating high-performing charters rather than simply growing as many charters as possible. This approach will empower parents with high-quality, meaningful choices and move cities closer to creating systems, networks, and portfolios of top-notch schools.

The federal legislation is a significant step in the right direction, but there is more to be done. Now is the time for states to enact policies that will maximize the impact of the federal action, such as:
  • Strengthening accountability mechanisms and empowering strong authorizers to act aggressively in closing poor-performing charter schools;
  • Providing equal funding for all public school students, regardless of whether they attend traditional public or public charter schools, as long as the schools prove results over time;
  • Establishing alternative authorizers and 'fast-track' authorization processes for high-performing public charter schools seeking to expand;
  • Removing arbitrary caps on the number of public charter schools;
  • Establishing supports that enable charter schools to provide safe, modern learning environments, such as a per-pupil facilities allotment, priority access to public education facilities, and alternative capital financing structures.
With these reforms, states will ensure that they have the necessary components in place for success -- with increased accountability, equal access to public resources, and structures that reward consistently high performance, all schools, and the children they serve, will benefit.

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