State awarded major federal Charter Schools grant

California asked for $300 million although exact amount of grant not yet determined

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell announced Tuesday that the California Department of Education (CDE) has been awarded a major federal Charter Schools Program grant through the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement.

California applied for $300 million in federal Charter School start up grant funds, O'Connell said although the Education Department has not yet announced the amount the state will receive from this competitive grant program.

"High quality charter schools can spur innovation and provide communities more flexibility to create the kind of learning environment they want for their children," O'Connell said. "This infusion of federal funding will give a boost to communities trying to initiate and share information about a charter school so the organizers can focus their attention on helping students succeed academically."

California's federal charter grant application specifies that the state will use the federal funds to increase the number of high quality charter schools in the state with stronger fiscal, governance and academic accountability training and reporting requirements.

The funds are also intended to sustain charter schools' capacity to improve the academic achievement of students and support the dissemination of effective practices of high quality charter schools, O'Connell said.

Preference will be given in the distribution of the funds to assist the development of high quality charter schools located in high-need communities where students attend schools in Program Improvement.

O'Connell has long been a supporter of high-quality charter schools that can serve as laboratories of education innovation.

A charter school is a public school that usually is created or organized by a group of teachers, parents and community leaders or by community-based organizations. A charter school may be sponsored by an existing local public school district governing board or county board of education.

According to O'Connell, charter schools are generally exempt from most laws governing school districts, except where noted by law. In exchange for this increased flexibility, charter schools are held accountable for improving student academic achievement. The objective is to replace rules-based governance with performance-based accountability, thereby stimulating the creativity and commitment of teachers, parents and citizens.

O'Connell said that the federal Charter Schools Program funding is designed to help communities in the planning, program design, initial implementation and dissemination of information on charter schools. As the grantee, the CDE makes the funding available as sub-grants on a competitive basis to developers of charter schools who have applied for a charter. Charter schools then are able to apply for the sub-grant funding once federal review of several requested waivers is complete, and the state legislature has approved a budget and the disbursement of the funds.

Once an applicant is awarded a sub-grant through the CDE, the funding may be used for the planning and design of the education program for a charter school, refining the desired education results, refining methods for measuring progress toward achieving those results, and the initial implementation of the charter school. Implementation may include informing the community about the charter school and acquiring necessary equipment, materials, and supplies.

The CDE may reserve up to 10 percent of the grant for another sub-grant to share lessons learned from high-quality charter schools with a demonstrated history of success, O'Connell explained. The purpose would be to share information about how to create and sustain high-quality, accountable schools with other public schools and charter schools.

--Jeb Bing

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