House passes charter school reform bill

The House on Friday passed bipartisan legislation to expand access to charter school funding.

Passed 360-45, the vote came in sharp contrast to the bitterly partisan debates this week over creating a select committee to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attack and holding former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress.

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A majority of Democrats — 158 in favor and 34 against — joined all but 11 Republicans in support of the measure.

The bill authored by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) and the panel's top Democrat, Rep. George Miller (Calif.), would consolidate the two existing federal charter school programs into one to award grants to state entities. 

The measure would also authorize the secretary of Education to maintain a federal grant competition for charter schools that did not win state grants. 

Republicans have touted the issue of school choice and access to charter schools as a way of limiting the federal government's role in education policy. Charter schools receive public funding, but operate independently and therefore are not subject to federal regulations.

"Expanding education opportunity for all students everywhere is the civil rights issue of our time," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said. "I say we help those students by expanding those slots so they can get off the waiting lists and into the classrooms."

Teachers unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association raised concerns that the legislation would not subject charter schools to federal education requirements, such as reporting teacher attrition rates and student discipline codes. 

But the unions, key Democratic party supporters, did say that the measure would include some improvements over current law such as creating weighted lotteries for charter school funding.

The House rejected, 190-205, an amendment offered by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) that would require the secretary of Education to develop conflict of interest guidelines for all charter schools receiving federal funds, such as disclosing individuals with financial interest in a given charter school.  

"There have been very serious cases all across the country over the past few years involving the conflict of interest in charter schools," Castor said. 

But Kline said the proposal would be unnecessary.

"This amendment is an overreach of federal authority," Kline said.

Members also rejected, 179-220, an amendment offered by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) to require charter schools to publish data regarding student enrollment criteria, discipline policies and orientation materials on their websites.

"It is important to ensure that our parents have information. and certainly should have info regarding the kind of discipline atmosphere that is there. They should also know whether or not there are serious commitment to making sure that their child's holistic future is in front of them," Jackson Lee said.

Kline said that requiring charter schools to publish such information would impose an unnecessary workload not required of public schools.

"I don't think we should be adding additional burdens onto charter schools," Kline said.

The House gave voice vote approval to an amendment offered by Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) to require the Government Accountability Office to audit federal funds given to charter schools for administrative costs.

"It is important we attempt to maximize the ability of the dollar to reach the classroom," Cassidy said.