Federal money for more charter schools

The U.S. Department of Education last week awarded $10.8 million to Indiana to help fund the planning and implementation of more charter schools. Indiana was one of 12 states to receive the Charter Schools Program funding, which totaled $136 million.

The purpose of the program, according to a DOE news release, is “to increase financial support for the startup and expansion of these public schools, build a better national understanding of the public charter school model, and increase the number of high-quality public charter schools across the nation.”

The next step is for Indiana charter school organizers to apply for the funding. According to the Indiana Department of Education, charter schools can be funded for up to three years – generally one year to plan their programs and two years to implement them. The money can be used to pay staff or consultants prior to opening, for staff development, and to buy equipment, books and computers, but not to pay salaries once the schools are operating.

This is an old program – it dates back as far as 1998 – but the Obama Administration is kicking up the funding as part of its effort to foster educational reform by promoting charter schools, public schools that are free from some restrictions that apply to regular public schools.

The government is spending $256 million for planning and implementing charter schools this year, and the administration’s budget proposal for fiscal 2011 includes a 20 percent increase for the program. The administration is also using funding competitions such as the Race to the Top program to get states to open more charters.

The funding awarded to Indiana charters is fairly modest – a drop in the bucket compared to the $207 million that Indiana schools are due to receive from the education jobs bill approved this month by Congress. At the same time, more charter schools will mean more competition for the finite pot of year-to-year money that Indiana provides public schools. As school districts lose enrollment to charters, they potentially lose money under the state funding formula.

Debates continue, meanwhile, on whether charter schools are the trend-setters that their supporters claim them to be. A study this summer by Mathematica Policy Research found that, on average, charter middle schools were no more successful than traditional schools in raising student achievement. (That’s “on average;” there were widespread differences among charters). Reporting by Catalyst Chicago, an independent education publication, found widespread deficits a high rates of teacher turnover among Chicago’s 71 charter schools.

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