Can States Show Congress the Way?

Can States Show Congress the Way?

The end of the government shut down and the threat of a default are over for now.  Analysts and pundits are sharing their summaries of what happened, and offering competing bets for what the recent events will mean for the future of our parties and our politics.  In terms of the big cleavages in America, it is still too early to know what all this will lead to.

While there may be some who think the final votes in the House and Senate on the shutdown indicate the rough shape of a future governing coalition, I don’t see it that way.   I think the standoff means that Congress just pushed the long-awaited revision to NCLB even further into the future.  But we don’t need to wait for Congress to continue our work to advance the charter school sector.  The federal Charter School Program (CSP) has always had broad waiver authority to allow states to create innovative charter programs. States should get started now. Congress and their next ESEA can catch up later.

Language coming out of the Senate’s education committee should dispel any optimism for a near term ESEA reauthorization.  The Partisan divide on education is wide and thriving. Case in point — Report Language on the Harkin-sponsored legislation that the Senate HELP Committee recently passed includes the usual summary of what was in the bill.  It also includes a Republican alternative report that dismisses just about everything in the bill as passed, while making the case for a separate replacement version.

Despite this gulf, we at NACSA remain encouraged.  We are optimistic because all the competing proposals on the hill share language that supports strong authorizing. The bills floating now all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Each of the bills in this diverse crop of proposals would grow a high quality charter sector, protect school autonomy, apply high standards, and look after the interests of students and the public.  Eventually, when there is a new ESEA, we expect it to help us do our work.  But even if a deal on the ESEA remains far off, we can still make progress in how the federal investment supports the charter school sector before the law is rewritten.

A promising short-term option is to use the existing flexibility within CSP.  The statutory language authorizing the CSP includes serious flexibility in the form of waivers available to states.  States that want to do things differently, or invest in efforts to accelerate what is working and to address what needs to improve, can just ask.

If we look at the budget numbers, that could have a significant impact on authorizing.  It now looks like the states will have a year or two to continue spending CSP funding.  The U.S. Department is also likely to run a new grant competition before the ESEA is revised that will involve most of the states.  That means that at least a half billion dollars of federal money will likely be spent on charters before a new ESEA is implemented.

I recommend that leaders throughout the charter sector work with their states to design and propose bold ideas that advance the sector.  We should think about problems that need attention, as well as opportunities to make what works now, work even better.  If some federal funding, or difference in how we use it, would help achieve these goals, then let’s put those ideas forward.

Of course, the politics of previous waivers may have spoiled people’s appetite for discretion in the administration of federal programs. The waiver authority does not allow the secretary to redefine what counts as a charter school, so states won’t be able to redirect this money toward non-charter schools.   However, unlike the rest of NCLB, Congress designed the CSP with a strong and expansive waiver provision that they built in order to support state-level experimentation.

Since the mid-1990’s, the Secretary has had explicit and wide discretion to approve waivers for states with good proposals.  There are probably many good ideas that states could imagine that won’t even require waivers.   As long as the Department doesn’t try to attach a prescriptive set of conditions on waivers, the field will respond positively.  Based on what states are wrestling with already, I am sure the range of possible activities will be quite broad. States will probably want flexibility to:

  • Improve access and services for all students, including students with disabilities or English Language Learners;
  • Invest in efforts to improve authorizing, including by providing assistance, as well as evaluating and holding accountable authorizers.  (Minnesota has already received a waiver to help them implement their own authorizer evaluation process);
  • Develop tools like performance frameworks or model contracts, or other tools to make sure charters face less redundant accountability systems as state accountability systems evolve in the coming years; and
  • Support and accelerate the replication of high-performing schools with a whole range of tactics, including using portfolios of high performing schools as a broader, system-turn-around strategy.

There will likely be many good ideas emerging from the field, and all of these can actually inform our future debates over the next ESEA.  I’m betting, that in the foreseeable future, it is more likely that states will come up with interesting ideas that are worth trying than it is that the divisions in Congress will be healed by compromise and comity.

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