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Why top US education official wants to lift cap on charter schools

US Education Secretary John King called for lifting the 'arbitrary cap' on charter school growth, taking a pro-charter stance on an issue that has recently become more partisan and divisive.

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Education Secretary John King speaks during the daily briefing at the White House on Sept. 29.

Susan Walsh/AP/File

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Education Secretary John King jumped into the charter school debate Wednesday to praise the schools and call for a lift of the “arbitrary caps” on the institutions.

The publicly-funded, privately-operated schools have become an increasingly contentious and partisan issue. Supporters argue that they provide families, especially those in urban areas, with increased choices when traditional public schools fail. Opponents cite cases of mismanagement and claim that the schools drain funds from the non-charter public school system. On Nov. 8, voters in Massachusetts will confront the issue first hand with a ballot question regarding the expansion of charter schools in their state. It's the only state with a charter school ballot initiative this year.

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Dr. King said the United States is “fortunate, I think, as a country, to have some high-performing charters that are doing a great job providing great opportunities to students — charters that are helping students not only perform at higher levels academically, but go on to college at much higher rates” than students at some neighborhood public schools.

“That’s good,” he added. “We should have more schools like that, and I think any arbitrary cap on that growth of high-performing charters is a mistake.”

Those views put King at odds with Democrats and the NAACP, who have called for stronger oversight and criticized schools for expelling some of the more difficult students.

While charter schools once received bipartisan support, new revelations about the privately managed institutions have caused Democrats and Republicans to split over the issue. Donald Trump proposed a $20 billion school choice program in September that would focus largely on a voucher-based system. Conversely, Hillary Clinton’s support of charters has waned.

In Massachusetts, voters have become increasingly divided over a ballot question that, if passed, would allow the state to create 12 new charter schools each year. Currently, the measure stands to fail by around 11 points, according to a poll, with 64 percent of Democrats opposing it.

“Many charters schools are producing extraordinary results for our students and we should celebrate the hard work of those teachers and spread what’s working to other schools,’’ Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “I am very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters. Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.”

Some 6,800 charter schools currently have around six percent of students enrolled nationwide and are poised to educate some 40 percent of US students if charter school growth continues.

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But research shows, much like neighborhood public schools, some institutions thrive while others falter. In New Orleans, an influx of charter schools has revamped the education system ravaged by hurricane Katrina a decade ago, but in other states, students in charters fail to achieve the same standards in reading and math as their peers in traditional public schools.

King has cited issues with charter school discipline in the past, but also focuses on the opportunities the schools can bring to disadvantaged neighborhoods. He acknowledged that some states “fail to take action to either improve them or close them, which is the essence of the charter school compact.”

But the success of others can’t be ignored. King said schools that, “are doing a great job for kids, that want to grow, they should be able to. I think this is an issue where we’ve got to put kids first. We’ve got to ask what’s best for the students and parents.”