Washington News

August 17, 2009

Are charters schools a price of entry to reform?

Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE (AP) - Eleven states have said no to charter schools, one of the education reforms President Barack Obama backs. They may soon be paying a penalty for that choice.

As states compete for more than $4 billion in federal education grants, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made it clear that those willing to embrace charter schools and other favored innovations will get preference. Those who refuse may end up shut out of the money.

The strong-arm tactics put politicians in a tough spot. Many teachers' union members strongly oppose charter schools, most of which use non-union teachers. And school districts themselves don't like giving up resources to the schools, which get government dollars but operate independently from the local school board.

But boosters, the president and Duncan among them, think they are key to turning around failing schools in part because charter operators have a big motivation for boosting student achievement. If kids don't do well, the schools can be shut down.

Charter schools can also keep kids in school longer, offer more one-on-one attention and try different ways of teaching and learning.

Duncan recently wrote in an opinion piece that states with charter school limits will decrease their odds of getting the grants - dubbed the Race to the Top competition by the administration. He has proposed a rating system to separate the winners from the losers; not every state will get a share of the money.

At the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference this summer, Duncan called the charter movement "one of the most profound changes in American education - bringing new options to underserved communities and introducing competition and innovation into the education system."

Starting at a competitive disadvantage will be 10 states that have never allowed charter schools - Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. An eleventh, Mississippi, which recently let its charter schools law expire, is expected to adopt a new law when its Legislature convenes in 2010.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire says her state has a shot at some of the education reform money, but not as much as if it had a charter law.

Washington state has rejected charter schools three times in eight years. In 2004, voters repealed a charter school law after a hard-fought campaign financed largely by the statewide teacher's union, which argued that charters would siphon money from other public schools.

Unions and their members do not oppose all charter schools, but they do want more say in how teachers are chosen. The American Federation of Teachers is actively seeking a bigger role in charter schools and has helped to unionize several.

Gregoire, who recently talked with Duncan about the grants, is hoping to convince the education secretary that her state has other creative programs and is willing to change.

"The secretary was clear, that's what they're looking for - nontraditional schools that allow students to excel," Gregoire said. "I would like to show him some of our alternative schools and get his feedback."

Charter school groups and education experts say creativity may not be enough and Duncan may decide to use states like Washington as an example of what happens when you don't give the president what he wants.

Todd Ziebarth, vice president for policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, thinks Duncan will want to reward states that are strong in all the elements, forcing states like Washington back to the table on charters.

"I think they're in for a rude awakening," Ziebarth said.

Duncan has been putting states on notice for months that he wants them to embrace charter schools, and that their failure to do so could mean they lose out on federal money. Still, he has not outright said that charter bans will disqualify states from the grants.

One of the administration's highest priorities is teacher accountability, and Duncan has publicly identified only one area that will bar states from getting a share of the money: a ban on using student achievement data to evaluate teachers.

He says the separation of teachers from test data is a major obstacle to the administration's goal of financially rewarding the best teachers.

Even so, Duncan has been a champion of charter schools, noting that the best are known for creativity, flexibility and making a measurable difference for kids in large urban school districts. Advocates say they offer an alternative to parents who want options beyond their neighborhood schools.

Some states already have gotten the message.

Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill expanding charter schools in the state after hearing Tennessee could lose out on the money if they kept blocking an expansion of charter schools. Illinois lawmakers decided in July to allow 60 more charter schools to answer President Obama's challenge after a campaign in that state by the state network of charter schools.

Commissioner Susan A. Gendron of the Maine Department of Education, where attempts to pass a charter schools law have failed, also is listening.

Gendron believes the department is waiting to award some of the money to give states without charter laws, like Washington or Maine, time to get charters on the books.

Both the schools chief and the governor of Maine supported a bill that didn't make it through the 2009 Legislature, and Gendron expects another attempt in 2010.

"While he hasn't come right out and said we won't get funding, the latest language is it will absolutely negatively impact our rating in the race to the top," Gendron said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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