Editor's note: This is the final post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
I nominate one of the smallest pieces of the ESSA as a potential high-leverage point for choice. Hidden in the Charter School Program (CSP) amid language shaping the grants administered by State Education Agencies (SEAs) is a little provision that could eventually lead to big changes regarding school choice. States can now spend 7 percent of their grants on system-level changes to support charter school expansion and quality.
Most everyone in the charter world knows that the CSP received more than $330 million this year. The biggest portion of that money goes to SEAs in the form of grants (which underwrite the sub-grants the SEAs themselves award to would-be charters in order to meet start-up costs). Let’s consider how a small bit—if people are smart about how they use it—could drive big change.
The SEA grant program traditionally allowed each state to spend up to 5 percent of its grant on administration functions. This money paid for the SEA staff members who work on charter school issues in general. It has also underwritten state evaluations and technical assistance, along with the basic nuts-and-bolts work of administering big federal grants. Anybody who has worked with a federal grant can appreciate that there are administrative burdens to fulfilling federal expectations. But one could also reasonably ask what else states might do to help. In response to that question, several groups—including the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—advocated for a change.
Under ESSA, states may now put only 3 percent of their grants into administration. But they can spend up to 7 percent on state-level activities to support quality and increase access to their charter school initiatives. States get grants that range from relatively small (around $7–8 million) to big honkers (as much as $50 or 70 million). That means that states could receive anywhere between $500,000 and $5 million to invest in system-level strategies to support charter schools and choice.
States are interesting places from which to drive this kind of change. My hope is that they have the credibility and reach to affect the way choice happens in both charters and district-managed schools. And they may be able to bring people to the table to solve widely shared challenges that frustrate parents and undermine the viability of school choice. States may be well placed to make the charter school system more family-friendly, or they may provide the cover and tools that make district/charter collaboration more effective and sustainable. They could also help chartering play a bigger role in the improvement of chronically low-performing schools. How might any of this happen?
States could use these funds to:
- Support family-friendly practices that make choice fairer and easier. For example: by helping to create a single application system for a city; or developing an information system that makes school quality transparent and comparable, empowering parents to make informed choices; or developing transportation models that expand the range of options families can logistically choose.
- Promote stronger authorizing with model tools and other support that produces merit-based approaches to charter oversight. This could all make it more likely that authorizers approve strong applicants and renew successful schools, even while preventing weak applicants from opening and closing failing schools.
- Convene working groups that build political consensus on the need to do tricky stuff, such avoiding unnecessarily exclusionary discipline practices while simultaneously respecting school culture and charter autonomy. It might also include working across silos to connect early childhood education and K–12, or K–12 and higher education systems.
- Develop infrastructure that makes it easier to provide excellent special education services in any school setting.
- Support new state accountability systems to focus turnaround or state takeover efforts on the replication of the most promising school charter operators.
These are just a few of the possible things a state could do. A list of timely and helpful state action might eventually be quite long. Hopefully, the tasks will be picked by state residents who look at the charter sector and decide where a relatively small hunk of money can have the most impact. This modest pool of money, if used wisely and creatively, could become one of those little engines of innovation and incremental freedom to solve problems that arise—or to accelerate the opportunities that we can’t predict now. People should start thinking about how to do so.
Alex Medler is a national expert on charter school policy.