Some cash-strapped states and school districts are signaling a major expansion of charter schools to tap $5 billion in federal stimulus funds, despite strong opposition from some teachers unions.
Charter schools are typically non-unionized, publicly funded alternative schools that have been widely promoted by conservatives as a needed dose of competition in public education.
Last month, the Louisiana legislature voted to eliminate that state's cap on new charter schools. The Tennessee legislature recently passed a bill expanding charter schools after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan personally lobbied Democrats who had been blocking it. And the Rhode Island legislature reversed a plan to eliminate funding for new charters after Mr. Duncan warned such a move could hurt the state's chances for grant money.
The most striking example may be in Massachusetts. Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino -- both Democrats with histories of strong labor support -- are proposing new state laws that would give them broader power to overhaul troubled schools, open more charter schools and revamp collective-bargaining agreements.
Gov. Patrick Thursday proposed increasing the number of available slots for students in state-sponsored charter schools to 37,000, from 10,000. He also wants to give state officials the explicit power to appoint outside receivers to run chronically underperforming schools. Mr. Duncan came to Boston to join Gov. Patrick and the mayor as they detailed their plans.
Charter schools receive public money but are free from many of the rules and restrictions that govern traditional public schools.
Mr. Menino, who oversees the Boston schools, wants Massachusetts communities to be able to transform traditional public schools into district-controlled charter schools and link teachers' pay to performance.
Formerly a charter-school critic, Mr. Menino said he is fed up with opposition from the Boston Teachers Union. "I'm just tired of it," he said. "We're losing kids."
Richard Stutman, the Boston Teachers Union president, declined to be interviewed.
Massachusetts public schools have regularly been among the nation's top performers. But officials have struggled to turn around the worst-performing schools and eliminate achievement gaps between white and minority students.
"We have been talking about these gaps for years while children wait," Gov. Patrick said Thursday.
The Obama administration created the "Race to the Top Fund" earlier this year to dole out federal money for school innovation. States and school districts nationwide suffering from deep budget cuts are scrambling for a share of the funds.
Mr. Duncan has warned states in recent months that they are unlikely to qualify for the grants if they don't move toward changes such as merit pay for teachers and lifting caps on charter schools -- measures that unions have either opposed or tried to limit.
In a speech earlier this month to a convention of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, Mr. Duncan urged teachers to embrace revamped pay and seniority rules to give schools greater flexibility.
"When a Democratic secretary of education goes to the NEA and mentions merit pay explicitly as something that has to happen, the ground has shifted," said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
Teachers are starting to adjust to the new landscape. They are "both feeling the pressure and willing to think about doing new things," said Jane Hannaway, director of education policy at the Urban Institute, a left-leaning research group. "It's a new world."
Some teachers unions have made moves to give administrators greater flexibility. In New York City, for instance, the United Federation of Teachers, which operates two charter schools, has accepted a form of merit pay.
Even so, Randi Weingarten, departing UFT chief and president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union, said some states are moving too fast. The availability of the new federal grants "is pushing people to say and do things simply because everybody is desperate for resources," said Ms. Weingarten, whose union represents 1.4 million members.
School takeovers and overhauls have a mixed record. While test scores rose in cities like Boston, Chicago and New York after mayors took control of the schools, state takeovers have been less successful. Most state education departments aren't staffed to manage a school district or an individual school. Even bringing in a private school-management concern doesn't ensure improvement.
In 2004, long-troubled Cole Middle School in Denver became the first school to be taken over by the state of Colorado. Management was turned over to KIPP, a large San Francisco-based school-management concern. It ran Cole as a charter school and test scores rose.
But KIPP had difficulty finding the right administrator for the long haul, and it eventually withdrew from the effort. The school was closed for several years.
Reopened last fall as an arts and sciences academy serving students in preschool through eighth grade, Cole is seeking state approval to undergo yet another transformation and become a so-called "innovation" school, which would give it charter-like status under state law.
In Massachusetts, with its long history of local control of schools, the proposals of the mayor and the governor are likely to face opposition from school boards as well as teachers unions. But with the availability of the new federal funds at stake, some think legislators will have a tough time voting against them.
"It would be a political disaster for anybody to be seen as reducing our ability to access that money," said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a right-leaning, Boston-based think tank.
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