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Charter Schools: We Want to Break Through the Partisan Gridlock | Commentary

As strong advocates for parental school choice, we were pleased that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was open to learning about the tremendous opportunities that charter schools can offer students and families. His decision to allow continued access to high-quality charter school options will ensure that the best curriculum, programs and school performance guide where parents enroll their children in school, not their ZIP code.

Nationally, this debate is alive and well within and between our parties. However, for us, school choice is a place where we see the greatest potential and need for bipartisan agreement.

On Tuesday, the House Education and the Workforce Committee, on which we both serve, will consider the Success and Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act (HR 10). This bill, offered by Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., and ranking member George Miller, D-Calif., strengthens and improves the federal Charter Schools Program by offering common sense policies that both of our parties can get behind.

As the chairman and a member of the Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee, we are in a position to bring together the best ideas from across the political spectrum to protect and enhance our education system to support individual choice and school improvement.

First, the bill strengthens the mechanism by which public charter schools are held accountable to students, families and taxpayers. The promise of public charter schools is that they are free to be innovative when it comes to instruction, scheduling, human capital policies and mission. Divorced from the public school system’s bureaucracy, they are able to experiment, but must be held accountable to parents, communities and the public. By providing incentives for states to adopt best practices for charter school oversight, the bill strengthens this system so that high-performing public charter schools are replicated and low-performing public charter schools are closed.

Second, this bill has a laser focus on quality. Under HR 10, states such as Indiana and Colorado would have the opportunity to apply for grants to build innovative public charter schools fulfilling diverse missions. This program rewards states with strong charter school laws concerning governance, facilities and funding to contribute to building a school choice ecosystem where students with a wide range of learning styles benefit. The bill creates additional incentives for schools to achieve and replicate academic excellence by providing substantial funding to a program that awards grants directly to the highest performing public charter schools. This program helps to seed the growth of high-performing public charter schools in states that have yet to fully embraced school choice and do not have state grants available.

Finally, the Kline-Miller bill supports equity. We are proud that public charter schools, which are funded by state and local tax dollars, do not charge tuition, do not have entrance requirements and do not discriminate against students on any basis. This bill clarifies this definition, and builds in stronger protections to ensure that students with disabilities and disadvantaged students have access to public charter schools. We hope these protections will help to convince our colleagues on both sides of the aisle that public charter schools are a valuable part of the education ecosystem.

For too many students and families, their neighborhood public school is not working for them. This is not a knock on traditional public schools; there are many excellent ones that serve their communities well. Maybe a student has a unique learning need that is not being met by their current public school. Perhaps a student would prefer the option to learn online through a state-funding online high school. In too many communities, a neighborhood public school that has been failing students and families for generations is the only option. This is unacceptable.

Public school choice is both effective and empowering. Families know what is right for their children better than legislators do, and should have the opportunity to choose. HR 10 would strengthen an already effective program by focusing on accountability, quality and equity. This is a place where we are thrilled to work across the aisle for students and families, and we urge our colleagues to put partisan fights aside and do what is best for our children.

Rep. Todd Rokita is a Republican representing the 4th District of Indiana. He is chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Rep. Jared Polis is a Democrat representing the 2nd District of Colorado. He is the former chair of the Colorado State Board of Education and the founder of the New America network of charter schools.

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