Charter Schools 2.0

By / 12.16.2009

The following is a guest column by Rep. Jared Polis (D), who represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District and is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Classroom desks

For education reformers who care about extending opportunity to every American family, these are exciting times. Congress has approved unprecedented funding to support our public schools, while at the same time driving much-needed and long-overdue reforms in states and districts across the nation through competitive grant programs like Race to the Top. Change is in the air and the upcoming reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) offers a historic opportunity to do the right thing for all of our children, regardless of background.

As a founder and former superintendent of charter schools serving at-risk students, I am heartened by the strong, fresh leadership of this administration and Congress in support of charter schools and innovation in public education. Both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have repeatedly called for federal investment in innovative programs with a proven track record of helping schools meet high standards.

The $4 billion Race to the Top program incentivizes states to embrace charter schools; the $3.5 billion Title I School Improvement Grants feature charter schools as a key strategy in turning around poor schools; and the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund invites entrepreneurial charters to partner with districts to improve student outcomes. The House Committee on Education and Labor, on which I serve, held a very informative hearing in June highlighting the amazing results attained in top-performing innovative charter schools around the country.

For those of us who have been advocating the critical role that high-quality charter schools can play in helping to close the achievement gap – and kudos to the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) for being a pioneer in touting the potential of charter schools since the mid-1990s, well before they became widely recognized – the current push for reform is gratifying. But it also requires us to think about what’s next for the charter movement in the federal framework. Seventeen years after the first charter school opened in Minnesota, what have we learned and how should ESEA reflect those lessons?

The Next Step: Scaling Up Successful Innovation

I believe we need to develop the 2.0 version of federal investment in charter schools. While we should continue supporting the Charter School Program, which helps start-ups, we must now focus on scaling up successful innovation – the proven models that we know get the job done in schools across the country. That is why I have introduced H.R. 4330, the All Students Achieving through Reform or All-STAR Act, which will enable and encourage top-performing public charter school models to expand and replicate, and also strengthen public charter school accountability and transparency. The All-STAR Act:

  • Establishes a new competitive grant program for the expansion and replication of top-performing public charter schools to serve at-risk students who are currently in underperforming schools.
  • Encourages new rigorous levels of reporting, oversight, and accountability for charter school authorizers, including intervention in or closure of low-quality charter schools.
  • Focuses resources on areas that are most in need by giving priority to eligible entities that serve a large share of low-income students who are enrolled in underperforming schools.
  • Gives priority to states that do not have caps restricting the growth of public charter schools and have policies in place that support academically successful charter schools, provide autonomy to schools, promote strong authorizing policies, and ensure quality control through performance-based accountability.

The bipartisan ALL-STAR Act is supported by several major education and civil rights organizations, including the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, Education Equality Project, United Negro College Fund, National Council of La Raza, Thomas Fordham Foundation, Democrats for Education Reform, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, Center for American Progress Action Fund, and of course, PPI. It is also backed by major charter management organizations like KIPP, Aspire, Achievement First, and others.

All-STAR reflects the need for us to build on what we already know works. As America keeps losing ground in the global competition for human capital development, we have no time to waste. While systemic reform is desperately needed, we must act now with the tools we have at our disposal. Let’s reward educational entrepreneurship, duplicate and expand success, and help close the achievement gap. America’s students deserve nothing less.