U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Thursday that states will jeopardize their access to some federal stimulus dollars if they don’t embrace educational innovations such as charter schools.
The comments have already made waves in Tennessee, where a bill recently failed in the state House Education Committee that would have expanded access to charter schools for Tennessee’s children.
The stimulus funds Duncan referred to represent about $5 billion out of the total stimulus dollars approved for public education nationwide. These funds, the Race to the Top dollars, are specifically earmarked for states with innovative practices.
Duncan stated publicly in February that Tennessee was a likely state to receive some of these funds, according to Rachel Woods, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education. The innovative practices in Tennessee highlighted by Duncan include the use of value-added education performance data, and the Tennessee Diploma Project’s ramping up of state standards slated to take place in the next few years.
Woods said she has spoken with DOE Commissioner Tim Webb about Duncan’s comments, and though Webb and Gov. Phil Bredesen have supported making changes to this state’s charter school law, it’s the opinion of the DOE that Tennessee nonetheless has a good shot at the stimulus funds.
“There are so many other policies that the U.S. DOE has highlighted that Tennessee has done as being progressive,” Woods said. “We still feel like we have a pretty good chance of getting some of the Race to the Top dollars.”
Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, said Duncan’s comments help “clarify” the issue.
“Secretary Duncan is making it very clear that part of the innovation factor they’re going to look at is how [we] handle charter schools,” Throckmorton said. “That could cost Tennessee.”
Throckmorton and other charter school supporters are still working hard to advocate on behalf of charter school law changes. The bill proposed this year passed in a full Senate vote this spring, but died when the House Education Committee voted to adjourn without having taken a stance on bill. The Education Committee could still reconvene this year, and talks are still taking place.
There are currently 16 charter schools in Tennessee, including three in Nashville. State law mandates a cap of no more than 50 charter schools statewide, and also limits who can attend. Tennessee charter schools may only enroll students who were previously enrolled in a charter school; who were assigned to or previously enrolled in a school failing NCLB regulations; or who in the previous year failed to test at an at least “proficient” level in several areas on Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) assessment tests.
Once part of the school system, charter schools must meet the same federal and state educational guidelines as other public schools. Charter schools receive local and state funding, but no public funds for building or transportation.