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The President’s Pre-K Proposal: How Charter Schools Fit In

Last week, the president’s proposal to expand access to full-day, high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for four-year olds from low- to moderate-income families was introduced in the House and the Senate. The Strong Start for America’s Children Act of 2013 was introduced in the Senate (S. 1697) by Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and in the House (H.R. 3461) by Representative George Miller (D-CA-11), the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Representative Richard Hanna (R-NY-22). Under the proposal, states, mostly likely through the state education agency (SEA) would apply directly to the U.S. Department of Education to receive funding for pre-kindergarten programs. The funds would be allocated to states by formula, based on their number of four-year olds living at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. States will be required to match the funds on an escalating basis beginning with 10 percent in the first two years and 100 percent by the eighth year and beyond. Federal funds will be gradually phased out over 10 years. In turn, states must sub-grant funds to local eligible entities (which may include school districts, public charter schools, Head Start programs, or licensed child care providers) to operate these programs. The legislation authorizes $27 billion over 10 years. Public charter schools and traditional public schools would be eligible to apply for a grant from their SEA to open, expand, and operate pre-K programs. Charter school participation could come at a cost, however: the legislation’s requirements could potentially undermine their autonomy and flexibility. For example, the legislation mandates requirements for teacher qualifications and salaries, class size, and required services for children–areas where most public charter schools currently have autonomy to set their own standards. Public charter schools thrive on their ability to be innovative and independent while being held accountable for student academic achievement. They enjoy the freedom to select their staff; create a distinctive school culture, adjust curriculum to meet student needs, and develop new learning models. Public charter schools could benefit from these pre-k grants to create early learning programs, but they should not have their hands tied. Consistent with the terms of their charter, charter schools should be free to innovate while being held accountable for results for any pre-k program they offer. Pamela Davidson is the senior director of government relations for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.