Capitol Words a project of the Sunlight Foundation

  • and

The Charter Schools Expansion Act

Sen. Daniel Coats

legislator photo

Mr. President, I am happy to speak today in recognition of the passage by unanimous consent of the Charter Schools Expansion Act, the bi-partisan bill. Senator Lieberman and I introduced this bill last November to help further expand the charter school movement which is so successfully providing new educational opportunities for children all around the country. This bill passed unanimously out of the Labor Committee and was unanimously approved by the Senate.

This important bill builds upon the great success of the original charter school legislation which Senator Lieberman and former Senator Durenberger introduced in 1994. It was Senator Durenberger's timeless promotion of charter schools that educated all of us to the promise and the benefit of this important public educational reform initiative.

The Federal Charter School Grant Program provides seed money to charter school operators to help them pay for the planning, design and initial implementation of a charter school. Since the program's inception, the number of charter schools has tripled, with over 1100 charter schools now operating in 33 States and the District of Columbia.

Charter schools are independent public schools that have been freed from onerous bureaucratic and regulatory burdens in order to pursue clear objectives and goals aimed at increasing student achievement. To increase student achievement, charter schools are able to design and deliver educational programs tailored to meet the needs of their students and their communities.

It is the individualized education available to students through charter schools that makes this a desirable educational alternative for many families. Charter schools give families an opportunity to choose the educational setting that best meet their child's needs. For many low-income families in particular, charter schools provide their first opportunity to select an educational setting which is best suited for their child.

Parents and educators have, in turn, given these programs overwhelmingly high marks. Broad-based studies conducted by the Department of Education and the Hudson Institute show that charters are effectively serving diverse populations, particularly disadvantaged and at-risk children, that traditional public schools have struggled to educate.

With results like these, it is no wonder that some of the strongest support for charter legislation comes from low-income families. Not only do these parents now have real educational choices, but they are actually needed in the charter school environment for everything from volunteering to coaching, fundraising, and even teaching. This direct involvement of families is helping to build small communities centered around the school.

Charter schools can be started by anyone interested in providing a quality education: parents, teachers, school administrators, community groups, businesses and colleges can all apply for a charter. And, importantly, if these schools fail to deliver a high-quality education, they will be closed--either through a district or State's accountability measures or from lack of students. Accountability is literally built into the charter school process--the school must comply with the provision in its charter, and unhappy parents and students can leave if they are not satisfied.

Additionally, a survey conducted last fall by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) found that the charter movement is already having a positive ripple effect that is being felt in many local public school districts. The NSBA report cites evidence that traditional public schools are working harder to please local families so they won't abandon them to competing charter schools, and that central administrators often see charters as ``a powerful tool'' to develop new ideas and programs without fearing regulatory roadblocks.

Several other studies have recently been released highlighting the success of charter schools around the country. Among other things, these studies have shown that charter schools have successfully met and surpassed the standards outlined in their charters, attracted significant proportions of minority and low-income students, and have higher parental approval rates than public schools.

The results of these studies point to important ways to improve and reinvent public education as a whole. The implications from the success of charter schools indicate that public schools should be consumer-oriented, diverse, results-oriented, and professional places that also function as mediating institutions in their communities.

The purpose of this bill is to further encourage the growth of high-quality charter schools around the country. This bill provides incentives to encourage States to increase the number of high quality charter schools in their State. To qualify for funding under this bill, States must satisfy two criteria. First, they must provide for review and evaluation of their charter schools by the public chartering agency at least once every five years to ensure that the charter school is meeting the terms of its charter and meeting its academic performance requirements. And second, States meet at least one of three priority criteria:

The State has demonstrated progress in increasing the number of high quality charter schools that meet clear and measurable objectives for the educational progress of their students;

To help ensure that the amount of the federal grants are proportional to the level of charter school activity in the State, this bill directs the Secretary to take into consideration the number of charter schools in operation, or that have been approved to open.

During drafting of this bill, the single greatest concern I heard from charter school operators related to their ability to access their fair share of federal education funding. And so, to ensure that charter schools have enough funding to continue once their doors are opened, this bill provides that charter schools get their fair share of federal programs for which they are eligible, such as Title 1 and IDEA. The bill also directs States to inform their charter schools of any Federal funds to which they are entitled.

This bill also increases the financing options available to charter schools and allows them to utilize funds from the Title VI block grant program for start-up costs.

Because it is so important that charter schools are held accountable in return for the flexibility they are given from Federal, state and local laws and regulations, this amendment includes several significant provisions which strengthen accountability. First, under the priority criteria, States must review and evaluate their charter schools at least once every five years to ensure that they are meeting the terms of their charter and their academic performance requirements. They are rewarded for increasing the number of high quality charter schools that are ``held accountable in their charter for meeting clear and measurable objectives for the educational progress of their students.''

The definitions section of the bill also stresses accountability by requiring a written performance contract with the authorized chartering agency in the State. These written performance contracts include clearly defined objectives for the charter school to meet in return for the autonomy they are given. The performance objectives in the contract are to be measured by State assessments and other assessments the charter wishes to use.

I am confident that this amendment will build on and contribute to the success of the charter school movement. This bill stresses the need for high quality, accountable schools which are given the autonomy they need to provide the best educational opportunity for their students.

With the passage of this bill, a strong signal will be sent to parents and teachers all across this country that they are not alone in their struggle to improve education. We hope to ease their struggle by enabling new charter schools to be developed. More charter schools will result in greater accountability, broader flexibility for classroom innovation, and ultimately more choice in public education. I urge my colleagues to increase educational opportunities for all children by supporting this bill.

Mr. President, I would like to take a moment and thank Senator Lieberman for his tremendous leadership in the area of educational reform. He and I have worked closely on a number of issues over the last several years, and I want to commend him, in particular, for his strong support and leadership on issues concerning increasing educational opportunities for low-income children. He understands so clearly the fundamental importance of providing a high quality education in a safe environmental of our neediest children. In addition to this charter schools bill, which will help to increase educational opportunities for low-income children, Senator Lieberman and I have worked closely for the last 4 years to gain support for publicly-funded scholarships for low-income children. I want to thank him for his unwavering commitment to this issue and his vitally important leadership. His efforts have done much to win bipartisan support for both charter schools and low-income scholarships and I thank him for his strong commitment to our country's neediest children. With the passage of this charter schools bill, Senator Lieberman and I have the pleasure of seeing the first of our joint educational reform initiatives move closer to becoming law.