Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, visited the Redmond Proficiency Academy Wednesday following the passage of a bill in the House that promises to bring more federal support to publicly funded, privately operated charter schools like RPA.
The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act passed the House on a bipartisan vote of 360-45 last Friday. The bill will consolidate two charter school support programs into one, while offering states more funding to expand and replicate practices at existing charter schools and to improve charter school facilities. The bill, which has not passed the Senate, authorizes $300 million for the program each fiscal year between 2015 and 2020. The program is currently funded at $250 million.
In Oregon, charter schools are funded by the state based on enrollment. Money is first sent to the sponsoring district, which takes a portion, before passing the remaining funds on to the charter.
During a speech before 30 RPA students, Walden touted the bipartisan support of the bill and its promise to bring more funding “to what has become a vibrant part of our education system.”
“About one-half million kids in America and 12,000 in Oregon are waiting to get into a place like this,” Walden said.
Walden noted that charter schools are meant to explore alternative ways of educating students, and that such programs often help kids who do not thrive in a typical high school. At RPA, students are grouped by ability instead of grade level, and learning is self-paced.
“This offers flexibility within the public system to maximize outcomes for students,” Walden said. “Some students wouldn’t succeed here. They’re not ready for such an individualistic, if you will, approach. They may still need the bells.”
When Walden asked the students what could be made better at RPA, students laughed when one criticized the air conditioning.
During his tour of RPA, which is spread across multiple buildings in downtown Redmond, Walden said he was struck by the campus structure of the school, which results in students walking from building to building during the day.
“It’s much more like college, which is a good thing, I think,” he told his two tour guides, both juniors at RPA.
One of Walden’s guides for the afternoon, Megan Bryant, 17, said she was “kind of scared” to be leading the congressman around campus.
“But my favorite thing to show is always the main campus, because there’s always so many students walking around and you get a good feel for the place,” she added.
Some education leaders have criticized what they see as a lack of oversight in the recently passed bill. A letter signed by the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and charter school leaders from the East Coast and Midwest stated, “(W)e urge you to support improvements to this legislation that would ensure better financial oversight of charters, transparency with charter finances, and equitable access for and treatment of all students.”
The letter pointed to a report by Integrity In Action, a group opposed to the influence of private interests in public education, which found charter school operations in 15 states, not including Oregon, are responsible for misusing $100 million of taxpayer money.
Walden said “there are good safeguards in place” in the bill as passed, though he did not elaborate on any of those measures.
In November, two men accused of mishandling $17 million in state education funds given to their chain of charter schools settled with the Oregon Department of Justice for $475,000 each. Three of the schools were located in Sisters.
In an email, Walden’s communications director, Andrew Malcolm, elaborated on the bill’s commitment to protecting against fraud.
“We believe the charter school authorizers (like Redmond School District) are the ones who are best able to monitor proper operation and management of the schools by the charter school operators,” Malcolm wrote. “The bill includes specific language to have the states agree to support quality authorizing efforts (such as written agreements and fiscal audits). Additionally, it requires the states to reserve seven percent of their grants to support quality authorizing efforts.”
Malcolm also noted that grants for charter school funds must go through a peer-review process, and that charter schools are required to have annual third-party financial audits that are publicly available.
“Finally, an amendment was added to the bill on the floor that requires the Government Accountability Office … to audit and track federal dollars that are used for administrative costs to prevent misuse,” he wrote.
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