Charter Schools:

Education Could Do More to Assist Charter Schools with Applying for Discretionary Grants

GAO-11-89: Published: Dec 7, 2010. Publicly Released: Dec 7, 2010.

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The number of charter schools is growing, spurred by demand for innovation and federal incentives, such as the Race to the Top Fund, which favors states supportive of charter schools. However, states often define charter schools differently than traditional public schools. Some charter schools operate as a school district, while others are part of a school district and some are for-profit entities. These differences could complicate eligibility determination for federal administrators. GAO was asked: (1) To what extent do charter schools apply for federal discretionary grant programs and what challenges do they face, if any, in doing so? (2) What role has the U.S. Department of Education played in helping charter schools establish their eligibility for federal discretionary grant programs? GAO identified grant programs governmentwide for which charter schools are eligible to apply, surveyed a stratified random sample of charter school officials, and interviewed federal agency officials. We also visited charter schools, school districts, charter school associations, and state educational agencies in 3 states.

Based on our survey of charter schools, approximately 7 percent of all charter schools applied for federal discretionary grants during school year 2008-2009, the most recent information about grant applications available at the time of our survey. The types of charter schools that applied differed. For example, 8 percent of charter schools designated as their own local educational agency (LEA) applied for grants compared to 2 percent of schools that are part of a larger school district or LEA. Based on their responses to our survey, some of the schools that are part of a larger school district believed they needed an LEA designation to be eligible for federal discretionary grants and did not apply because of their charter school status. We identified 47 discretionary grant programs for which charter schools are potentially eligible. Both charter schools designated as their own LEA and individual charter schools were potentially eligible for the majority of the 47 programs. The Department of Education administered 33 of the 47 programs. Given the range of application rates in 2008-2009, some charter schools may be unaware that they can apply directly for these grant programs. On the other hand, charter schools that are part of a larger LEA were not eligible to apply for grants that did not designate a public school or a nonprofit organization as an eligible applicant and may not have applied for that reason. In addition to a lack of resources and a lack of experienced and knowledgeable staff available to prepare competitive grant applications, officials also indicated their lack of awareness about the grant opportunities available to charter schools was a major reason their school infrequently applied for discretionary grants. Several officials we surveyed expressed a desire for an improved means of learning about grant opportunities that address their school's needs. While the Department of Education has taken steps to encourage charter schools to apply for grants, information about opportunities may not reach all charter schools. Education has inserted language into grant announcements of 17 of the department's 33 grant programs for which charter schools are potentially eligible in order to explicitly alert those charter schools authorized as LEAs of their eligibility to apply for grants. Of the programs for which surveyed charter schools applied, most included such language in their grant announcements. Education has not taken steps to clarify grant eligibility for charter schools that are part of a larger LEA. As public charter schools, these schools could apply for grants for which individual public schools are eligible. Although Education uses multiple methods to publicize grant opportunities, such as the Federal Register, http://grants.gov, and Education's Forecast of Grant Opportunities, these mechanisms are directed toward all schools and do not target outreach to charter schools. Furthermore, for 16 of the 33 grant programs for which charter schools are potentially eligible, grant announcements sent to potential applicants through these mechanisms do not explicitly identify charter schools as eligible applicants Education has published a guidebook to accessing federal programs for charter schools, but charter schools cannot access it through the Charter School Program's Web page on Education's Web site. GAO recommends that Education clarify grant opportunities for charter schools, highlight charter schools' eligibility in relevant grant announcements, and post its grant application guidance for charter schools on its Web site. Education agreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Education concurred with our recommendation and said it would take steps to further publicize the federal discretionary grant opportunities for which charter schools are potentially eligible. Specifically, Education has tasked the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC), a technical assistance center, with compiling a list of charter schools nationwide for a listserve used to distribute relevant grant notices. NCSRC will also post grant notices on its Web site and Education has linked its Charter Schools Program (CSP) Web page to this Web site. In fiscal year 2013, Education reported that the department posts its grant notices and information on GovDelivery, a firm that expedites digital communications, including information from the NCSRC Web site. The NCSRC also sends grant information through its listserve of more than 11,000 members. However, it is not clear whether the GovDelivery and NCSRC messages reach all charter schools, whether the messages include grants in all federal agencies for which charter schools are eligible, or whether the NCSRC's grant list is updated annually. ED reported in FY14 that the NCSRC continues to post grant opportunities on its website and includes a link to allow viewers to upload opportunities. The CSP continues to send out grant information through GovDelivery. However, it still is not clear whether all charter have access to notices about all federal grants for which charter schools are potentially eligible. We will close the recommendation once Education takes steps to ensure such access, such as using the list of charter schools in Education's EDFax system to distribute notices of governmentwide grant opportunities, and updating the the notices annually.

    Recommendation: To further publicize grant opportunities for charter schools seeking federal assistance and to help strengthen charter schools' management capacity to pursue grant opportunities, the Secretary of Education should clarify the federal discretionary grant opportunities for which charter schools are potentially eligible. For example, using existing grant notification mechanisms, Education might develop one link on the department's Web site to all federal discretionary grants for which charter schools are potentially eligible, governmentwide.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education concurred with our recommendation and stated that it will add text to all of the Department's pertinent discretionary grant announcements indicating that charter schools meeting relevant criterion are eligible to apply. Education also plans to encourage other federal agencies to identify charter schools as eligible applicants in relevant grant application notices. In fiscal year 2013, Education reported that they continue to ask other agencies to list charter schools as eligible applicants in their grant notices. In FY14, Education provided a list of ED grants that list charter schools as eligible applicants, such as Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Programs and Project Prevent Grant Program. A review of the list confirms that Education has begun adding text to pertinent discretionary grant announcements that charter schools meeting relevant criteria are eligible to apply.

    Recommendation: To further publicize grant opportunities for charter schools seeking federal assistance and to help strengthen charter schools' management capacity to pursue grant opportunities, the Secretary of Education should require all pertinent Education discretionary grant program offices to add text to the grant announcement stating that charter schools meeting the relevant eligibility criterion are eligible to apply for the grant.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Education stated that it will provide updated guidance for applying to federal grant programs on the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) Web site. The Web site will also highlight federal discretionary grant application experiences of small charter schools that previously won awards. In fiscal year 2013, Education provided us with links to the information available on the Charter Schools Program (CSP)Web page about its seven grants, to the list of grant opportunities on the NCSRC Web site, and to a webinar presented in July 2011 about developing fund raising strategies. However, Education did not report that an original or updated version of their publication, Accessing Federal Programs, A Guidebook for Charter School Operators and Developers, which gives an introduction to the grant funding process and lists federally funded resources for applying, has been posted to the Web site. Education reported in FY14 that the CSP collaborated with the i3 and Race to the Top programs in July 2013 to present at the National Charter Schools Conference on Beyond CSP: Charter Schools' Roles in Department of Education Grant Programs. The NCSRC materials continue to be available via the NCSRC website. In addition, during FY15, the CSP intends to update and disseminate a Federal Funding Opportunities document, first created for the 2012 National Charter Schools Conference, describing programs throughout the Federal government for which charter schools might be eligible. GAO will consider the recommendation closed once Educatio has updated the Federal Funding Opportunities document and posted the document on its website.

    Recommendation: To further publicize grant opportunities for charter schools seeking federal assistance and to help strengthen charter schools' management capacity to pursue grant opportunities, the Secretary of Education should require that the Charter Schools Program (CSP) post the guidance for applying for federal grant programs that it developed for charter schools on the department's Web site.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

 

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