As states compete for more than $4 billion in federal “Race to the Top” stimulus grants, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made it clear that states willing to embrace charter schools and other favored innovations will get preference. That, in turn, could prompt a rise in the number of virtual charter schools and other charters that open across the country.

Eleven states have said no to charter schools so far, though some of these states operate state-run virtual schools. They soon might pay a penalty for their choice.

The power Duncan wields through his use of the federal Race to the Top fund to spur the kind of school reforms favored by President Obama puts state lawmakers in a tough spot. Many teachers’ union members strongly oppose charter schools, most of which employ non-union teachers. And school districts themselves don’t like giving up resources to the schools, which get government dollars but operate independently from the local school board.

But supporters of charter schools–the president and Duncan among them–think they are key to turning around failing schools, in part because charter operators have a strong motivation for boosting student achievement. If kids don’t do well, the schools can be shut down.

Charter schools also can keep kids in school longer, offer more one-on-one attention, and try different ways of teaching and learning–including fully online or blended (both face-to-face and online) instruction.

Duncan recently wrote in an opinion piece, declaring that states with limitations on charter school will decrease their odds of getting Race to the Top grants. Duncan has proposed a rating system to separate the winners from the losers, noting that not every state will get a share of the grant money.

At the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference this summer, Duncan called the charter movement “one of the most profound changes in American education–bringing new options to underserved communities and introducing competition and innovation into the education system.”

Starting at a competitive disadvantage will be 10 states that have never allowed charter schools: Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. An eleventh, Mississippi, which recently let its charter schools law expire, is expected to adopt a new law when its Legislature convenes in 2010.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire says her state has a shot at some of the education reform money, but not as much as if it had a charter law.

Washington state has rejected charter schools three times in eight years. In 2004, voters repealed a charter school law after a hard-fought campaign reportedly financed largely by the statewide teacher’s union, which argued that charters would siphon money from other public schools.

Unions and their members do not oppose all charter schools, but they do want more say in how teachers are chosen. The American Federation of Teachers is actively seeking a bigger role in charter schools and has helped to unionize several.

Gregoire, who recently talked with Duncan about the grants, is hoping to convince the education secretary that her state has other creative programs and is willing to change.

“The secretary was clear, that’s what they’re looking for–nontraditional schools that allow students to excel,” Gregoire said. “I would like to show him some of our alternative schools and get his feedback.”

Charter school groups and education experts say creativity might not be enough, and Duncan might decide to use states like Washington as an example of what happens when you don’t give the president what he wants.

Todd Ziebarth, vice president of policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, thinks Duncan will want to reward states that are strong in all the elements, forcing states like Washington back to the table on charters.

“I think they’re in for a rude awakening,” Ziebarth said.

Virtual charter schools are growing in popularity across the country, Ziebarth added. Indiana is opening its first statewide online charter school this year, and five organizations have filed petitions with Georgia’s Charter School Commission to open virtual charter schools in the state, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the state’s sole online charter school, the Georgia Virtual Academy.

The academy has nearly 4,500 students enrolled in just two years of operation and a growing waiting list. But the school serves only kindergarten through eighth grade, which has created a void in virtual education for high school students, said Andrew Broy, head of the charter school division for the state Department of Education. Broy said it’s not likely the commission will approve all five of the schools, but at least one probably will get the Georgia panel’s nod.

Still, only 18 states have moved forward in creating policies to support virtual charter schools, and “the demand from students and parents shows how important these options are for preparing students for the 21st century,” said Susan Patrick, president and chief executive of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Patrick said she agrees the administration’s use of stimulus funding as a carrot for encouraging broad school reforms could lead to the creation of more virtual charter schools nationwide.

Duncan has been putting states on notice for months that he wants them to embrace charter schools, and that their failure to do so could mean they lose out on federal money. Still, he has not said outright that charter school bans will disqualify states from the grants.

One of the administration’s highest priorities is teacher accountability, and Duncan has publicly identified only one area that will bar states from getting a share of the money: a ban on using student achievement data to evaluate teachers.

He says the separation of teachers from test data is a major obstacle to the administration’s goal of financially rewarding the best teachers.

Even so, Duncan has been a champion of charter schools, noting that the best are known for creativity, flexibility, and making a measurable difference for kids in large urban school districts. Advocates say charters offer an alternative to parents who want options beyond their neighborhood schools.

Some states already have gotten the message.

Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill expanding charter schools in the state after hearing Tennessee could lose out on the money if they kept blocking an expansion of charter schools. Illinois lawmakers decided in July to allow 60 more charter schools to answer President Obama’s challenge after a campaign in that state by the state network of charter schools.

Commissioner Susan A. Gendron of the Maine Department of Education, where attempts to pass a charter schools law have failed, also is listening.

Gendron believes the department is waiting to award some of the money to give states without charter laws, like Washington or Maine, time to get charters on the books.

Both the schools chief and the governor of Maine supported a bill that didn’t make it through the 2009 Legislature, and Gendron expects another attempt in 2010.

“While he hasn’t come right out and said we won’t get funding, the latest language is it will absolutely negatively impact our rating in the race to the top,” Gendron said of Duncan.

Links:

Race to the Top Fund

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

International Association for K-12 Online Learning

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Stimulating Achievement resource center. Learn how to make wise spending decisions and keep track of school needs as stimulus funds become available. Go to: Stimulating Achievement