Educators who aspire to open a new school may be able to make their dreams a reality with a new bill moving through Congress.
On October 18, 2023, Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and Booker (D-NJ), along with Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Senator Cassidy (R-LA), Senator Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Scott (R-SC), Sen. Hassan (D-NH), Sen. Braun (R-IN) and Sen. Schatz (D-HI) introduced S.3072, the Empower Charter School Educators to Lead Act. The purpose of the bill? To provide more equitable access to pre-planning resources needed to open a school and tear down barriers for those who need the most help.
Anyone who wants to open charter schools in most states these days face a complex and lengthy charter school application process. These potential charter school operators generally work on applications in their spare time, often with little support from philanthropy, their state, or other sources. This can be especially challenging for educators–those who are in the classroom every day but may have a larger vision for educating their students.
Unless an educator has access to some form of support, the challenge of preparing a successful application can be a significant disincentive for the development of new and engaging approaches to raising educational achievement and producing other educational benefits through charter schools. Further, the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP)—sometimes the only source of startup funding available to someone looking to start a school—does not allow subgrants to help potential developers develop plans for new, high-quality schools before they submit their charter applications.
Providing a modest amount of funding to support potential charter school leaders at the pre-planning stage (before the submission of a charter) could provide stipends and technical assistance to help educators and their leadership team produce successful applications and make it through to the next stage of an already challenging process.
This federal bill would get funds to prospective school leaders earlier in the development process to improve the quality of their charter application and thereby success of the school. In addition, it supports equitable access to CSP funds because prospective school leaders from more disadvantaged backgrounds and communities that lack equitable access to resources to open a new school could have more support from the CSP earlier in the process.
How it works: The bill S. 3072 does NOT create a new program. It simply reallocates how funds are used by CSP state grantees and increases the overall amount that can be used at the state level to provide technical assistance and support authorizer quality and prospective charter applicants. The increased funds will also help state grantees and charter schools comply with significant new federal regulatory requirements enacted in 2022.
Specifically the bill would do the following:
- Authorize State Entities to use up to 5% of their grant make pre-planning awards (in amounts of no more than $100,000) to prospective charter applicants (or public or nonprofit entities that will support prospective applicants) provided that prospective applicants meet the following criteria:
- Are led by educators with at least 54 months of experience;
- Completed the development of an initial plan for the opening of a public charter school;
- Have demonstrated leadership competencies and success with students, as determined by the State entity; and
- Have not yet submitted a proposal for approval of a charter to an authorized public chartering agency.
- Raises the cap on the percentage of State Entities grant funds that may be used for State technical assistance and authorizer quality improvement activities from 7% to 10%. An increase in the set-aside for technical assistance would give grantees the resources they need to meet the needs of the charter school sector. A recent report from the federally-funded National Charter School Resource Center found that most grantees concentrated their technical assistance funds on supporting subgrantees, including specifically on helping schools meet the needs of students with disabilities and English learners. Many grantees have contracted with organizations like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to support quality authorizing, conducted ongoing analysis of current practices, provided individualized technical assistance or professional development for authorizers, and disseminated promising practices.
State Entity grantees also use those funds to support the pipeline of new charter schools by identifying and recruiting potential applicants and, according to the same NCSRC report on use of TA set aside funds, about half of grantees reported doing so. Additional funds for technical assistance would help make it possible to engage in new or deepen existing these activities.
- Raises the cap on the percentage that may be used for State administration from 3% to 5%. The CSP is one of the most complex K-12 programs to administer, with numerous federal requirements for awarding subgrants, monitoring grantees, and ensuring compliance with federal as well as state requirements for charter schools. These requirements were only made more complex with the new regulations by the U.S. Department of Education that add significant amounts of compliance and monitoring expectations. Even prior to these regulations some grantees have had to raise funds to cover additional costs to ensure high quality grantees, such as paying peer reviewers. The current cap leaves grantees responsible for funding necessary expenses, such as software for subgrant administration and stipends for peer reviewers. Fundraising to cover the cost of administration effectively functions as a matching requirement, and some grantees say it is all but impossible to administer the grant without external support. One grantee reported needing to raise approximately $320,000 on top of the allowed $675,000 for direct administrative expenses and salaries for work over the course of its grant. Adding pre-planning grants will only add to administrative needs to support educator access to these funds.
- Clarifies that States’ technical assistance activities may include assistance to charter schools in locating and accessing a facility. These sorts of activities are already permitted. The purpose of adding this language is to highlight it as a possible use, since many new charter school leaders lack technical expertise building leases or working with districts to access public buildings.
This bill would close the equity gap that educators face when seeking to start a public charter school and lead to more innovation from the people who see firsthand what’s working for students. If you support educators, then it’s a no-brainer to support this bill.
Christy Wolfe is the senior vice president for policy, research, and planning for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Fiona Sheridan-McIver is the director of policy.