National Conference Highlights Federal Grants to Charter Schools

When charter schools and their supporters are looking for federal funds, most head straight for the Office of Innovation and Improvement’s (OII’s) Charter Schools Program (CSP). With a FY 2013 budget of about $242 million, the CSP administers eight grant programs, which have contributed to what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently described as the “extraordinary accomplishments” of charter schools in the past two decades.

Topping the list of accomplishments, Secretary Duncan indicated in his recent keynote address at the National Charter Schools Conference, “is that high-performing charters have irrefutably demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels.”

CSP’s grant programs aim squarely at helping disadvantaged children to achieve academically through the creation of more high-quality educational options. These include the Replication and Expansion for High Performing Charter Schools program, which provides funds for nonprofits, including charter management organizations, to grow existing charter schools or open new ones based on models that have demonstrated success.

But two other highly competitive and high-profile Department of Education grants outside of CSP have similarly supported at-risk children attending charter schools — the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund and the Race to the Top‑District (RTT-D) programs. One session at the national conference focused on these programs, which have allowed charter schools and charter management organizations to grow in number, in impact, and in quality.

The 2013 conference drew about 4,000 charter school leaders to Washington, D.C. for three days of information and professional development. In the 2012-13 school year, 21 years after the first charter school opened in Minnesota, about 6,000 charter schools educated more than 2.3 million students from pre-kindergarten through Grade 12, or 4.6 percent of all students enrolled in public schools. An additional 920,000 students were on waiting lists last school year.

The Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund has awarded 92 grants totaling $937 million since the program began in 2010. A fourth competition is expected to provide an additional $135 million later this year. The i3 Fund is designed to build a portfolio of innovative solutions that address persistent educational challenges, as well as to bring to scale educational practices with a proven track record.

The i3 grants fall into three categories: (1) Development grants for promising ideas that should be studied; (2) Validation grants for programs with moderate evidence of effectiveness that need to further assess their effectiveness or to build their organizational capacity to succeed at a larger scale; and (3) Scale-up grants for programs with strong evidence of effectiveness that are ready to grow and expand to a national level.

Here are examples of i3 grants awarded to the charter sector in each of the three grant categories:

  • The KIPP Foundation was awarded a $50 million Scale-up grant, with which it is training 1,000 future leaders. These include 250 principals, 60 of whom are outside the KIPP network of public charter schools, who will open new schools or assume leadership of existing schools during the grant period. The remaining 750 leaders will use their training to begin their paths to school leadership. The i3 grant also has enabled KIPP to create a fellowship program to share and disseminate best practices to both chartered and non-chartered public schools.
  •  New Schools for New Orleans was awarded a $28 million Validation grantto grow its New Orleans Charter School Restart Model developed following Hurricane Katrina. The funds are supporting efforts of successful charter school operators to annually turn around the bottom five percent of the target area’s persistently lowest-performing schools. Grant funds are being used to start up and expand charter schools, as well as to further improve the model with the goal of using it to turn around the lowest-performing schools nationwide.

    child with crayon

    An i3 Development grant is helping AppleTree to refine its Every Child Ready model. (Photo courtesy of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation)

  • The AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation received a $5 million Development grant to implement and refine its Every Child Ready preschool model. In his conference keynote, Secretary Duncan cited the model at AppleTree, which has seven campuses in the District of Columbia, as “a great example of early learning innovation” that “has nearly closed the preparation gap for kindergarten.”
    This grant is being used to refine the Every Child Ready model, which drives how and what teachers teach. AppleTree plans to create tools (including electronic modules and instructional handbooks) designed to improve assessments, provide differentiated instruction, and implement the model in different environments — including other public schools, both charter and traditional — in order to conduct a longitudinal study across diverse preschool sites.

To read applications for these three i3 grantees, click here and follow the links provided.

The Race to the Top–District (RTT-D) competition made its first awards in December 2012, and a competition for 2013 was announced on July 30. Three of the 16 2012 grantees are from the charter sector. RTT-D builds on the success of ED’s Race to the Top state grant program but focuses squarely on classrooms and the all-important relationship between educators and students, with an emphasis on personalizing learning for all students and providing school leaders and teachers with tools to help them meet their students’ needs and to accelerate and deepen their learning. Here are three charter grantees:

  • Harmony Public Schools in Texas received $29.9 million to implement project-based learning that allows students to focus on their studies, based on their interests and skills, through a curriculum that is aligned to high standards, as well as two other initiatives. Custom Day provides a two-hour block of time for targeted instruction along three flexible paths — remedial support, enrichment activities, and elective courses. The Harmony Performance Management Database provides customized dashboards to give teachers, students, and parents access to data that will allow them to track whether students are mastering college and career-ready graduation requirements.
  • IDEA Public Schools, located in Texas, received $29.2 million to improve the quality of its blended-learning instructional model for grades K-5 and expand its blended learning to grades 6-12. Additionally, the project is developing dashboards within Lightbulb, a data management system, to provide students with the ability to track progress towards high school graduation. These dashboards also will provide student performance data to parents, students, and teachers.
  • KIPP DC received $10 million to increase the number of highly effective teachers in the District of Columbia by enrolling 415 promising recruits in its Capital Teaching Residency (CTR) program. The training is designed to equip the teachers with skills that hasten and deepen student learning. The project is also providing schools with innovative tools and technology for teaching and learning, such as software that allows for individualized instruction aligned with Common Core standards. In addition, KIPP DC is developing a framework to share and support best practices with local and national partners.

Click here to read the applications of these three grantees.

Throughout the conference, attendees heard how an invigorated emphasis on quality and accountability is improving education in many charter schools, particularly for African-American students in poverty and for Hispanic English language learners. In his keynote address, Secretary Duncan praised states with authorizers who award new charters only to high-quality applicants and who close down weak charter schools. Finally, the Secretary provided the charter community with future challenges: do better at educating students with disabilities [click here for related blog], overage students, students in the correctional system, and all English language learners; place more emphasis on developing students’ non-cognitive skills (like grit and self-regulation); expand charters into the early learning arena; and test out and apply new knowledge and research about how students learn.

Nancy Paulu is an education program specialist in OII’s Charter Schools Program.

The references to specific projects within this article does not constitute an endorsement by the Department of any particular practice, intervention, or activity being carried under these projects, or imply that other i3 and RTT-D projects are not carrying out important and high-quality activities.