Stimulus could spur more virtual charter schools

As states compete for more than $4 billion in federal “Race to the Top” stimulus grants, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made it clear that states willing to embrace charter schools and other favored innovations will get preference. That, in turn, could prompt a rise in the number of virtual charter schools and other charters that open across the country.

Eleven states have said no to charter schools so far, though some of these states operate state-run virtual schools. They soon might pay a penalty for their choice.

The power Duncan wields through his use of the federal Race to the Top fund to spur the kind of school reforms favored by President Obama puts state lawmakers in a tough spot. Many teachers’ union members strongly oppose charter schools, most of which employ non-union teachers. And school districts themselves don’t like giving up resources to the schools, which get government dollars but operate independently from the local school board.

But supporters of charter schools–the president and Duncan among them–think they are key to turning around failing schools, in part because charter operators have a strong motivation for boosting student achievement. If kids don’t do well, the schools can be shut down.

Charter schools also can keep kids in school longer, offer more one-on-one attention, and try different ways of teaching and learning–including fully online or blended (both face-to-face and online) instruction.

Duncan recently wrote in an opinion piece, declaring that states with limitations on charter school will decrease their odds of getting Race to the Top grants. Duncan has proposed a rating system to separate the winners from the losers, noting that not every state will get a share of the grant money.

At the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference this summer, Duncan called the charter movement “one of the most profound changes in American education–bringing new options to underserved communities and introducing competition and innovation into the education system.”

Starting at a competitive disadvantage will be 10 states that have never allowed charter schools: Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. An eleventh, Mississippi, which recently let its charter schools law expire, is expected to adopt a new law when its Legislature convenes in 2010.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire says her state has a shot at some of the education reform money, but not as much as if it had a charter law.

Washington state has rejected charter schools three times in eight years. In 2004, voters repealed a charter school law after a hard-fought campaign reportedly financed largely by the statewide teacher’s union, which argued that charters would siphon money from other public schools.

Unions and their members do not oppose all charter schools, but they do want more say in how teachers are chosen. The American Federation of Teachers is actively seeking a bigger role in charter schools and has helped to unionize several.

Gregoire, who recently talked with Duncan about the grants, is hoping to convince the education secretary that her state has other creative programs and is willing to change.

“The secretary was clear, that’s what they’re looking for–nontraditional schools that allow students to excel,” Gregoire said. “I would like to show him some of our alternative schools and get his feedback.”