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Federal Charter School Grant Program Gets Big Boosts From Budget, ESSA

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Charter schools are mostly a state policy issue, but the federal government significantly expanded its role in the sector this month with changes made to the running and funding of a major grant program.

The Charter Schools Program, which has awarded over $3 billion to help launch new charter schools and expand high-performing models, got an $80 million funding increase over last year, in the budget passed last week by Congress.

Slated to receive $333 million for fiscal 2016, the Charter School Program will be at its highest level of funding ever, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That's a big deal to the fast-growing charter sector, especially in areas of the country that don't have access to a lot of philanthropy dollars.

"Few states have funding set aside for the launching of new schools, which is really critical if you want to launch properly," said Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "So the federal government has been the only source, and continues to be. With this increase, they are definitely sending a signal that they are interested in the growth of charter schools across state lines."

There are also significant changes coming to the Charter Schools Program through the Every Student Succeeds Act, the major federal education law that Congress rebooted earlier this month for the first time in more than a dozen years.

ESSA makes several changes to the program that will help expand its reach, according to Rees and Amanda Fenton, the director of federal policy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Among them:

  • The grant competition for states is now open to governors, state charter school boards, and charter school support organizations, whereas before only state education agencies could apply for money;
  • State grants must be awarded on an annual basis to at least three states, compared to more recently when grants were awarded roughly every other year, which means more states will receive grants;
  • And the competition for charter management organizations, which was created through the budget process about five years ago, is now officially included in the federal education law.

"It creates more stability," said Fenton about that last item. "If it's done through the appropriations process, it means that every year it has to be reauthorized." 

The Charter Schools Program will also for the first time dedicate funding to supporting strong authorizing practices, she said.

This good news for the Charter Schools Program follows a somewhat rocky autumn when the program got caught up in controversy surrounding one of its grant recipients.

The U.S. Education Department was heavily criticized this fall over its decision to award the largest grant to Ohio, where low achievement and fraud have been well documented in some of the state's charter schools.

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