Bill Would Expand Federal Funding for Charter Schools

Last Updated: September 28, 2011

This article appeared in the September 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would amend the charter school portion of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The bill, H.R. 2218, entitled “Empower Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act,” passed the House 365 to 64 and now moves to the Senate where its fate is less certain.

The legislation would increase funding for competitive grants to public and non-profit entities to “strengthen a cohesive statewide system to support the opening of new charter schools and replicable high-quality charter school models.”

Several aspects of the bill echo requirements in other recent federal grant programs, including provisions that state charter laws set no cap on the number or percentage of charter schools or charter school students. H.R. 2218 would also require states to provide funding for school facilities for charters commensurate with regular public schools.

Both of these provisions run counter to the charter laws of many states, although several states have recently altered their laws in order to become eligible for federal grants, including Race to the Top.

Response to research critiques

Research on the academic performance of charter schools has been mixed at best, casting doubt on blanket claims that charters outperform regular schools. Further, there are widespread concerns that charter schools increase racial and economic segregation and enroll English Language Learners and students with disabilities at lower rates than regular public schools.

H.R. 2218 seems specifically aimed at these critiques, calling for the expansion of “high quality” charters, which it defines as charters with “evidence of strong academic results” and ”success in significantly increasing student academic achievement and attainment.”

Further, several provisions are aimed at increasing enrollment of traditionally underserved students, including students learning English and students receiving special education services.

Rural implications

Awards would be based, at least in part, on how well the applicant demonstrates their record of achievement, their ability to strengthen a statewide charter system, and their plans for working with charters to monitor academic performance and increase enrollment of underserved students.

The legislation also specifically says that both public and non-profit applicants for grants should “to extent possible” ensure that sub-grants (grants to charter schools) are distributed “throughout different areas, including urban, suburban, and rural areas.” Elsewhere the bill says that consideration will be given to how “the entity will support diverse charter school models, including models that serve rural communities” and how the entity will help the charter schools receiving funds “consider the transportation needs of the schools’ students.”

While the legislation acknowledges rural areas, it does not address specifically rural issues associated with charters. Chief among those is the economic impact of charters on small school districts, which generally suffer under state finance systems driven largely by enrollment. When charters drain students, and therefore per pupil funding, the regular rural school takes a disproportionate hit.

More ironically, states tend to view small size as a postive attribute of charters and generally provide charters with relative flexibility to use small size to their advantage. But states rarely give the same kind of flexibility to rural schools where small size is generally treated as a disadvantage, forcing small rural schools to squander many of their size-related strengths in order to meet state requirements designed for much larger schools. And not infrequently those same requirements are used as justification for closing small rural schools altogether.

H.R. 2218 includes language that charters and regular public schools should share best practices, but nothing suggests that rural schools might offer important lessons or that they might gain any of the flexibility currently reserved for schools with the charter label.

It is not clear if or how the Senate will proceed with this legislation. But it is clear that federal policy is pushing charter schools and that rural communities and school districts will increasingly find themselves grappling with those implications.

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Read the text of H.R. 2218 here:

Read more from the September 2011 Rural Policy Matters.