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Making choices

Education | New state education chiefs struggle to expand charter schools while eyeing private tuition help

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," April 24, 2010

WASHINGTON-On the other side of a year of tea parties, party-line votes, town halls, and rallies on healthcare reform, the Obama administration may seize on a subject that could win consensus: education. U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan likes charter schools and is eager to see more of them dotting the map-a goal some reform-minded Republicans on the state level share as well.

Another national education reform like No Child Left Behind is on the distant legislative horizon, but state reforms are already beginning. Even now the federal government is tossing treats to states that show a willingness to make drastic changes to improve public school systems (see sidebar) through the competitive grant program Race to the Top. Duncan announced the first two states to win at the end of March: Tennessee and Delaware will receive a total of $600 million out of the $4 billion fund. Tennessee lifted its cap on charter schools to be more competitive for the grants. On the 500-point scale that determined winners, 40 points went toward those states that nurtured charter school growth.

New Republican governors and their cabinets are already working to expand charter schools-in their own fashion. Gov. Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey both have education chiefs who are committed not just to expanding charter schools but also to offering voucher or tuition tax credit options-something the Obama administration has aggressively opposed on a federal level.

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Charter schools-publicly funded schools that function independently, often without union demands-are increasingly in vogue (the District of Columbia alone has more than 60). But teachers unions and other political factions are mounting stiff opposition to the schools' expansion. And while charters give individual schools a flexibility they don't have under government strictures and labor guidelines, the nature of a charter-with small class sizes and a cumbersome application process-means that building one is a time-­consuming task. "Throw four times as much money at [a charter school] and expect it to serve four times as many people-that's not helping anybody," said Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, based in Arlington, Va. Soifer serves on the Washington, D.C., charter school board.

Virginia has only three charter schools even though the schools have been legal in the state for a dozen years. Gerard Robinson, Virginia's new secretary of education, wants to expand charters as well as what he calls "parental options." He has spent his professional career doing just that-he was the head of the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options in Atlanta before joining McDonnell's administration and has worked in charter schools across the country.

Explaining what charter schools are is half the battle to win support. In Atlanta, he said, "It took a year to convince the community that the charter schools were public schools." At the same time, he told me that charter schools shouldn't be a "sanctuary for schools that fail."

Though Robinson just started his job this year, the state assembly has already passed a watered-down version of the McDonnell administration's new charter school proposals. Robinson allows that "it's not a strong law," since power to reject charter school applications still rests with local school boards, who have long been reluctant to authorize any new charter schools. But he's encouraged after less than three months' work.

The Virginia Black Caucus, a coalition of state legislators, has been the most vocal opposition to Robinson's efforts to expand charter schools. The caucus-given the state's history in the 1950s of fighting desegregation with tuition assistance for white students at private schools-worried that charter schools wouldn't offer equal opportunity to all students, relegating poor minorities to the worst schools.

"There's no small amount of irony in that," commented Soifer, who serves on the D.C. charter school board. "The majority of charter schools serve in areas with a high African-American population." Soifer said some D.C. charter board members have offered to take members of the black caucus on tours of successful charter schools in the city, but so far the law­makers haven't accepted the invitation.

New Jersey's new Republican administration faces a battle with the state teachers union over the expansion of charter schools. The state's new education commissioner, former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, has even more distasteful designs for the unions: vouchers. Outright voucher programs-the government paying tuition bills-don't have broad support. But one bipartisan proposal is already before the New Jersey assembly, offering privately funded vouchers to low-income students. Businesses that donate to nonprofit voucher funds will receive tax credits. Virginia might be able to take such an approach, but voucher advocates have an uphill battle. The state constitution only allows public funds for "non­sectarian" schools, and any changes to the constitution take years.

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