"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, June 08, 2009

Let the Battle Begin

What part of The Race to the Top don't you Democrats understand?

From the Tennessean:

GOP still pushes bill expanding access to charter schools
Possible changes in Tennessee education spurs debate on risk of losing stimulus

Republican lawmakers are still working on a proposal to expand charter school eligibility before the end of the legislative session, saying the state could be in danger of forfeiting $100 million in federal stimulus funds.

Democrats and public school representatives say that the funds aren't guaranteed regardless of what the legislature does, and that the state could very well receive the money without expanding charter schools.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, would open charter schools to all urban students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch programs. Nearly three-fourths of students in the Metro schools system qualify.

Harwell and other Republicans contend that Tennessee could lose out on $100 million as part of a $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" federal grant program for states that commit to education reform — including increasing access to charter schools. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is scheduled to talk to reporters today about President Barack Obama's administration's emphasis on the importance of charter school access to receiving the funds.

Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton wouldn't speak Friday about Tennessee's shot at the funding, but said, "States that don't search for innovative solutions certainly don't help their chances."

Harwell is hoping to reopen the House Education Committee, which closed last month without voting on the legislation, if she can persuade Democrats to break their stance against it. Democrats had pledged to vote uniformly against the bill in the committee.

"Regardless of how you feel about public charter schools, this money would benefit all educational systems here in Tennessee, and we should be in play," she said.

In case Democrats don't change their minds, Rep. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has filed amendments to place the proposal on two education-related bills on the House floor soon. Harwell says she would prefer to go through the committee.

In previous committee discussions, some Democrats accused charter school leaders of targeting urban areas to draw poor, black students and their state funding away from the public school system for monetary gain.

With budget cuts scheduled for physical health and safety programs, losing student funding could further hurt schools, said Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory.

"We're cutting things from schools already, and now we're talking about taking money out of schools? That's a problem," he said.

Turner said Thursday that he had spoken with Duncan twice last week and was scheduled to speak with him again. He planned to assure the secretary that Democrats would work on a different deal for charter schools that would please his members.

"I've assured him that if we couldn't get anything done this year, we'd work together this summer to try to get something for next year," Turner said.

State law allows up to 50 charter schools, which typically can accept only low-performing students and students in low-performing schools. Tennessee now has 16 charter schools, including three in Nashville.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has backed charter school expansion, saying the Metro district needs the option to avoid further penalties under No Child Left Behind.

"It's too important to our kids to let politics stop reform for another year, and millions of dollars of federal money may be at risk," Dean said in a statement Friday. "President Obama says it best: Ideology and politics should not stand in the way of our children's success."

Call for accountability
But the $100 million doesn't depend solely on charter school eligibility, and Tennessee hasn't lost out on any of the funds because they haven't been distributed yet, said Earl Wiman, president of the Tennessee Education Association, which opposes the bill.

If legislators are going to expand eligibility of charter schools, they should tighten regulation and give the schools less time before being subject to state review, Wiman said.

"If they're going to be getting that money and making that promise, they shouldn't be afraid of increased accountability," Wiman said.

Applications for the federal grant program will be accepted beginning in late fall 2009. First payouts are scheduled for spring 2010.

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