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Portsmouth Herald: Bill to expand charter school moves on to U.S. Senate

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By Jamie Webben
Portsmouth Herald
September 17, 2011

WASHINGTON — With a largely bipartisan vote, the U.S. House of Representatives this week approved legislation aimed at expanding and promoting charter schools throughout the country.

The Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act, passed 364-54, now goes to the Senate for further consideration. Although the bill, designated as HR 2218, had wide backing from both parties, including “ayes” from Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H., skepticism about the effectiveness of charter schools looms.

Organizations opposed to the bill include the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher organization, the American Association of School Administrators and Parents Across America.

According to staffers on the Education and the Workforce Committee, from which the legislation emerged, HR 2218 is designed to facilitate states’ expansion of charter schools and make it easier for them to obtain federal funding, as well as support an evaluation of such schools and encourage them to recruit troubled students.

Originally intended for struggling students, charter schools are publicly funded, but unlike most public schools, are not subject to strict government rules or regulations. However, charter schools are generally required to show their students have made significant educational improvements each year to continue to receive public funding.

Karran Harper Royal, a spokeswoman for Parents Across America, said the legislation is “less about helping the most at-risk kids and more about privatizing legislation.” Royal also said the ways in which charter schools have evolved are “hurting the children they were meant to help.”

A spokesperson for the NEA said, while it was pleased with a number of provisions in the bill, it “cannot support the bill in its current form” due to issues regarding “resource and opportunity gaps between (public and charter) schools.”
Pingree said she has “serious reservations about funding charter schools in this environment because they can take scarce resources away from existing public schools.” Despite her apprehensions, Pingree said she voted for the bill because it “eased some requirements for who could apply for money under this program.”

While there are currently no charter schools in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage in June signed legislation permitting them. The first charter school in Maine is expected to open a year from now.

According to the Center for Education Reform in Washington, there are 10 charter schools in New Hampshire that serve approximately 2,200 students.

Stephen Kossakoski, chief executive officer of the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School based in Exeter, said the pending bill is “a positive for the charter school movement,” because it can help fund “education research that can impact the wider education community.”

Guinta said he backed the bill because “charter schools are an important tool for reducing the federal government’s role in education” and encouraging “parental involvement to help our children succeed.”

Advocates of the bill also cite the high demand to create more charter schools across the country. According to the Center for Education Reform, more than 1.2 million children across the nation are waiting to get into a charter school.
While it isn’t clear how many new charters schools would be created if the bill becomes law, a House Education and the Workforce Committee spokeswoman said “the legislation will give states greater opportunities to expand and replicate the state’s highest-performing charter schools.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who introduced the bill in June, urged “the Senate to do its part for the children who stand to benefit greatly from these innovative learning environments.” He said the bill has the potential to set America’s children “on a stable path to future success and prosperity.”

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