Alex Medler’s (VP, Policy and Advocacy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers), suggestion that states seek flexibility under the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) makes a lot of sense, especially since any reauthorization of the ESEA still appears to be a long way off. The planning, implementation and dissemination grant funding offered by the federal government through the CSP are substantial and yet are tied to federal law that is in some respects more conservative than are state charter school laws. Medler suggests calling for waivers for measures such as increased authorizer accountability, emphasis on student performance, and fostering the replication of high performing programs. All seem valuable, although these would need to be paired up with specific limitations in the existing laws that limit them. One example, is a provision in the CSP limiting states from reserving more than 5% of CSP grants for state use. If a state were to receive a waiver from that provision, it might be able to offer more supports, such as statewide technical assistance on special education best practices.
As Medler notes, however, under current law no waivers may be sought that impact the definition of “charter school” under the CSP. That definition is extensive and touches on what is most restrictive in the CSP. For example, while some states allow for admissions practices that target students at risk for academic failure, the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department) interpretation of the CSP’s definition of charter schools is that such a prioritizing would be impermissible. If a state were, for example, to seek to allow charter schools to focus on serving students with autism, such schools would not eligible for CSP funds if they use a selection process weighted towards the admission of autistic students even where, as in states like NY, FL and PA, state law permits.
All of which is to say that using the flexibilities available under the current law is valuable, but we should not stop there. States should press for a loosening of the way the Department interprets the CSP and possibly for more flexibility in the CSP itself. Students with disabilities in charter schools would benefit from all of the above.
Senior Fellow and Co-Founder