Five new charter schools are expected to open across Washington next year — and they now have a multimillion dollar reason to celebrate. A Washington charter schools nonprofit has won a nearly $20 million competitive federal grant to help these new schools get off the ground.
School administrators plan to use the funds from the federal Department of Education to ease the expensive costs that come along with opening a new school, such as paying for laptops, books and desks. Charter school organizations in Alabama and New Hampshire also won multimillion dollar grants for these purposes.
Charter schools in Washington, which are publicly funded but privately run, face challenges akin to those found at startup companies. Although they receive state funding for each child who attends, they do not benefit from local tax levies, which pay for school districts’ building and construction costs. Charters have to raise money for these and other upfront costs by fundraising, turning to philanthropists and seeking grants.
“It’s really focused on supporting the high-quality launch and implementation of schools,” said Gillia Bakie, director of development at Washington State Charter Schools Association, which applied for and now oversees the grant. “This is one key part of a larger funding puzzle.”
Washington passed its charter school law in 2012, making it one of the last states to offer the alternative to traditional public schools. The schools have fought for their existence in Washington amid staunch criticism that they are privately managed and not accountable to local school boards in the same way as their traditional public school counterparts.
Which schools ultimately receive the funds isn’t decided. But charter school administrators can soon apply for a portion of the grant. Five schools set to open next year are eligible, as are successful charter schools looking to increase enrollment. Over five years, the grant is expected to support 10 new schools and expand two existing ones. In 2016, Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction won $6.9 million through the same grant.
About 3,500 students attend the state’s 10 existing charter schools and the grant would help enroll an additional 6,000 students at these schools and new ones by 2023, Washington State Charter Schools Association officials said. More than 1.1 million children are enrolled in Washington’s traditional public schools.
The injection of federal dollars comes at a critical moment. Washington’s charter schools are finally on solid legal footing following two major disputes: a constitutional challenge to the 2012 state ballot measure that first approved the schools in Washington, plus a legal challenge to using lottery revenues to pay for the schools. Charter school advocates ultimately won out in both cases.
“The law is here to stay, so it’s really now incumbent on those who are interested in opening great schools to try to leverage it for that purpose,” said Nina Rees, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which is based in Washington, D.C.
Charter schools still face political push back, as well as practical challenges such as convincing families to enroll. Last year, two charter schools closed due to dwindling enrollment. Both were operated by Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school network based in California.
Charter school administrators say they are now dreaming up ways to use the money.
Administrators at Cascade Public Schools, who intend to enroll 104 ninth-graders at a new charter high school next year, say they will apply for funds to cover a laptop for every student. The school is expected to open in the Midway/Woodmont neighborhood of Kent and Des Moines.
If all goes as planned next fall, Shauna Edwards hopes to open the doors at Lumen High School, Spokane’s third charter school. Edwards is executive director at the specialized school, which caters to teenage parents and their children. The school has space for 60 high schoolers — plus their children — in its first year.
Pitching a school that serves young moms and dads had its own challenges, but after winning authorization from Spokane school officials in June, Edwards hired a principal and signed a lease on the school’s building.
If Lumen receives a portion of the grant, Edwards said she will use it to buy a long list of items, such as desks, library books and conference room tables. Instead of waiting a year or two to raise enough money for special parenting guides and children’s books, Edwards could use the grant to buy them immediately.
The infusion of money, she said, “It just strengthens the possibility of someone saying, ‘I’m going to do this crazy thing of starting this school.’”