And the Charter School Grant Goes to…Ohio? Let Me Explain

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education  announced $157 million in grants to charter schools. Eight of 27 states that applied won State Education Agency grants totaling $125 million. Two more states, Texas and Louisiana, have applications under review and could end up with grants this year. A dozen  charter management organizations (CMO) shared grants worth $32 million. I’ve been watching the Federal Charter School Program (CSP) since it came into existence and I’ve been involved with it as it has grown and matured. Along the way it’s always made controversial decisions. The CSP juggles competing and conflicting goals and constituencies, and it does so with the admittedly imprecise and awkward tools of federal grant making and authority. It is almost inevitable, then, that people second-guess its decisions. This year is no exception, with the grant awards involving one loser and one winner. This year’s more-questionable decisions included awarding the largest grant to a state with a reputation for having weak oversight and too many bad charter schools (Ohio), while not providing funding to the state where the most new charter schools are opening (California). The primary task of the CSP is to provide start-up grants to new schools. In addition to this basic function, it adds resources and attention to current opportunities and challenges. Accordingly, the program now emphasizes support for high-performing CMOs. It exhorts charters, authorizers and states to ensure students with disabilities and English learners are served well. It also brings attention to various challenges, such as weak authorizing and lax oversight; conflicts of interest between governing boards and management companies; and problems with fiscal, operational and management oversight. Priorities in the grant competition reflect these values, and the department released a letter that addressed these issues. California’s grants to new schools are not immediately threatened, however, because California still has millions left from its previous grant. Whether those leftover funds match the scale of new schools is not clear. But it is clear that those leftover funds, along with concerns about the administration of the previous grant and plans for the next one, are what ultimately sunk the state’s application. The leaders in California have a chance to write a better application in the next round, as well as a year to spend down leftover funds. More startling in the latest round was awarding the largest grant to Ohio, known for having a dysfunctional charter sector. In its defense, the state has adopted initial policies to begin working on these problems, even if the defenders of bad charter schools succeeded in temporarily blocking legislation to hold them accountable. But things in Ohio look better today. That legislation is finally moving forward, which provides some hope that the latest federal money may help to advance the cause of quality. An interesting question for Ohio is whether the new environment will produce a large crop of new schools, which, rather than the work on improving oversight or quality control, is what determines the size of each state’s grant. Ohio has a long way to go before all is well, which is why funding the state was hard for many in the field, myself included, to fully understand. The power of the federal government is a difficult tool to wield. And there will always be complaints to accompany the progress. Even when the department is achieving its goals, there will inevitably be frustrations among some who want to see that influence used differently. Over the years, the CSP has helped grow and strengthen charter schools considerably, while also providing timely guidance and support that amplifies what is working well and focuses attention on what needs to improve. This year’s round of funding, despite some wrinkles, continues that positive trajectory.
Alex Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement.
Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to ...

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