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November 02, 2009
The US Department of Education has hired a new director of its Federal Charter Schools Program, which oversees a variety of grant programs for starting and replicating public charter schools, as well as credit enhancements to help them afford high-quality facilities. Stefan Huh, the new director, is leaving DC's Office the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) after four years running the Office of Public Charter School Financing and Support there. (Full disclosure: I worked for Stefan at OSSE last summer and consider him a mentor and an important influence on my decision to work full-time in education after business school.)
Stefan's tenure in DC provides some hopeful signs that ED will continue to step up its game on charters. First, while he's a strong advocate for public charter schools, he focused strongly on school quality while running the program at OSSE. For instance, the office added a competitive grant component to its teacher compensation program last summer, developed by my colleague Jessica Sutter.
Second, Huh is not a natural-born bureaucrat ? he understands that building more quality schools means taking calculated risks. For example, most of ED's grantees in the Credit Enhancement Program for charter school facilities have used those funds in safe ways that have not dramatically increased access to capital for new charters. Texas uses its $10 million from the Department only for bond financing, which typically only very mature, safe charters can access. Under Stefan's direction, DC has instead largely backed younger schools that have proven themselves to be managed by reliable, thoughtful folks but have had difficulty lining up financing, meaning more public charters in the District can build or renovate high-quality facilities.
Given the reality of a flat budget for the Education Department and an increasing need for new, quality public schools, there is a significant opportunity for the Administration to remake its charter school program along the lines of Race to the Top: more competitive grants and a stronger focus on quality. It's a big challenge, but from where I sit, Stefan Huh is the right guy for the job.