Bipartisan support expected for House charter school bill

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A bill to expand charter school access is expected to receive a broad bipartisan vote in the House this week, a rare departure from polarizing fights over congressional investigations and healthcare.

The bill would free up more federal money for states and localities, and advocates say it would help reduce a national waiting list that has grown to more than 1 million children seeking to enroll in public charter schools.

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Republican leaders on Wednesday touted the bill, titled the Success and Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act, saying it had garnered the support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“When parents have choices, kids get a better education,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a press conference, in which senior Republicans were joined by local charter students. “Nobody likes competition, but competition makes everybody better.”

Charter schools have met with opposition from some teachers unions and are under scrutiny in places like New York City, where new Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on a platform of shifting resources from charter schools back to traditional public schools.

Liberal advocates have complained of an outsized corporate influence in charters, which are publicly financed but independently run.

But the schools remain popular on Capitol Hill, where they have drawn support from both Republican and Democratic leaders over the last decade.

President Obama and the Democratic-led Senate proclaimed this week “National Charter School Week," and Republicans have made them a centerpiece of their “school choice” education agenda.

Authored by Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), the bill has the support of the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), and passed out of the committee on a 36-3 vote.

Kline said Duncan told him he supported the bill and voiced confidence that the Senate would act on similar legislation.

The House passed a similar proposal in the last Congress, but the Senate did not take it up. And it was included it in the broader rewrite of the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, which Democrats opposed.

“We think it’s time to take what we can get,” Kline said of the charter school measure. “We’d love to do the whole Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That’s still a little problematic. But we ought to take this piece and open up this opportunity for the kids, and I think we’ve got a chance to.”

“With the administration’s support,” Kline added, “I have pretty good confidence that we’ll see a bill come out of the Senate, and we’ll have a law.”

The Senate, however, is working on its own reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a large measure that might not be able to be reconciled with the House’s version before the 113th Congress adjourns.

It is unclear whether Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the Senate’s education chairman, will advance a stand-alone charter school bill.

“Senator Harkin supports strengthening public charter schools and included provisions in his ESEA reauthorization bill to improve and update federal charter school programs,” Harkin spokeswoman Allison Preiss said. “He remains committed to moving a full ESEA reauthorization bill through the Senate.”