Duncan: Charter school-friendly states have better shot at stimulus cash

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 at 1:36pm

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday that states with laws friendly to charter schools have a better shot at Race to the Top stimulus dollars.

But he didn’t make commitments about how the federal government might weigh a case like Tennessee — a state whose application might be hampered by restrictive charter school laws, but would otherwise be able to show strong evidence of big public education innovations.

“You have a waiting list of thousands of children who are waiting for these kinds of opportunities, particularly low-income children, who haven’t had the chance,” Duncan told reporters. “I think there’s a real chance there, in Tennessee, to do the right thing by those children and those families [who] are looking desperately for a better option.”

The Race to the Top money, which has received national press following Duncan’s recent statement that states will jeopardize their access to the money if they don’t embrace educational innovations such as charter schools, represents about $5 billion out of the total stimulus dollars approved for public education nationwide.

Duncan stated publicly in February that Tennessee was a likely state to receive some of these funds, and the state Department of Education has said the state will probably apply to use the money for efforts connected to the Tennessee Diploma Project and TVAAS data use – two initiatives Duncan has highlighted as impressive Tennessee efforts. The application for the Race to the Top funding won’t be complete until the end of the summer.

But Tennessee’s chances for the cash could be harmed by lawmakers’ recent move to put charter school-friendly legislation on the back burner. The legislation, which stalled for the session in the education committee on May 20, would have allowed children on free or reduced lunches to have the choice of attending charter schools. It also would have erased the cap, currently at 50, for how many charter schools Tennessee may have.

Duncan said Monday that the specifics of the application criteria still haven’t been drilled down. But he said the process will be “simple, objective and transparent,” with a list of questions and specific point values associated with each area.

“This is clearly an area where we have significant interest,” Duncan said, referring to charter schools.

“We don’t put a cap each year on the number of students who can graduate. We don’t put a cap each year on the number of students who are allowed to take AP classes. We’re always trying to do more of that,” Duncan said. “If something is working … why would we put an artificial cap on that?”