Arkansas nonprofit gets $23M to expand charter schools

The U.S. Department of Education has selected the Arkansas Public School Resource Center to receive $23 million over five years to expand charter schools, particularly for poor students.

The center will receive an initial $5.6 million to get started.

Scott Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Arkansas center, said the grant has the potential to support as many as 30 new open-enrollment and conversion charter schools in the state.

Arkansas has 26 open-enrollment charter school systems, which are taxpayer-supported but operated by nonprofit organizations other than traditional school districts, and about the same number of conversion charter schools that are run by traditional school districts.

The public school resource center, which has headquarters in Little Rock, is a membership organization that offers technical support, resources and training to public schools with an emphasis on charter schools and rural schools.

The U.S. Department of Education announced this week that it will award about $77.8 million in the first year of the multiyear U.S. Charter Schools Program State Entities Competition grants to eight organizations, most of which but not all are state departments of education.

The federal grant program enables recipient organizations to provide subgrants to other organizations to aid in the preparation and opening of open-enrollment and conversion charter schools. That can include the expansion and/or duplication of existing high-quality charter schools. Other purposes of the grant are to improve student achievement and to disseminate best practices.

"The focus is on quality schools and working with all populations but with a special focus on poverty and academically challenged populations," Smith said Friday.

"What we put in the proposal was possibly providing up to $1 million for a new startup school that is serving significant poverty populations in academic need areas out there," he said. "That's quite a bit more funding than has been available in the past," he said, adding that the grant money available to each campus is likely to vary depending on the other resources available to a planned school.

Grant money to new or expanded charter schools would be in addition to state foundation aid and other categorical funds provided to charter schools and traditional schools.

The state ensures that every school has a minimum amount of foundation funding per student. This year that is $6,781. Charter schools receive that full amount from the state. Traditional public schools generate a portion of that from local property tax revenue and the state makes up the difference to ensure at least $6,781 per student.

Smith said his organization worked in partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education to develop and submit the grant application last spring. The resource center had previously applied for the grant in 2017 but fell short of qualifying for funding by two points. As a result, Smith said, the organization was fairly confident of success with its latest application.

The state Education Department last received the Charter School Program grant in 2011.

"We're excited," Smith said. "There's a lot of work to be done still yet, and we are in the preliminary stages of getting more information in and working with the U.S. Department of Education on process and procedures."

In Arkansas, charter school applications are submitted to the Charter Authorizing Panel for evaluation and a vote of approval or disapproval. However, the panel's vote on a proposal is reviewed by the Arkansas Board of Education, which has the authority to accept the panel decision or conduct a hearing of its own to decide whether a school should be approved or not.

The other federal grant recipients for fiscal 2018 and their projected five-year grant amounts are Arizona Department of Education, $55 million for opening 40 campuses; Colorado Department of Education, $55.2 million; Delaware Department of Education, $10.4 million; Michigan Department of Education, $47.2 million; New York State Education Department, $78.9 million; North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, $26.6 million; and Bluum Inc., which leads a state consortium in Idaho to foster the development and replication of high-quality charter schools in that state.

Metro on 10/06/2018