Medler: By Applying for Federal Waivers, States Can Shake Loose Grant Funding to Help Schools During the Pandemic. Here’s How

Schools face unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 emergency, including the costs of transitioning from in-person instruction to distance learning. The U.S. Department of Education’s Charter School Program could provide more resources through new strategies during the emergency, including granting waivers, adjusting current grant awards and establishing new state-level support structures. For many states, waivers could free up more money to help many charter schools — and similar measures could in theory aid other types of schools as well.

Despite expansive waiver authority, historically, the feds have been reluctant to grant waivers that would substantially alter how program funds are used. Now is the time to reconsider. Charter schools, grant administrators and leaders at the department could work together to use the funding to advance the purposes of this program while addressing immediate needs during the pandemic.

In some places, that work is already underway.

New York, Tennessee and Florida have applied for waivers to use program grants to award new subgrants to charter schools to help with pandemic-related costs. The idea is to repurpose program funds from current State Educational Agency and State Entity grants. These funds can only support charter schools. Other federal programs and funding streams could be repurposed to help all public schools.

Without a waiver, a charter school can get only one program grant, and states can’t award new grants to schools after they are up and running except to replicate or expand. With a waiver, new funding could be available to all charter schools, not just those with a current subgrant. Under Florida’s plan, for example, the grants could potentially fund any charter school in the state. The state plans to prioritize new funding according to need by awarding noncompetitive subgrants in tiers, starting with schools with the highest proportions of low-income children and single-site operators.

If Florida’s waiver is granted, program funds could pay for unexpected expenses related to the pandemic. Schools could purchase computers and software licenses; expand Wi-Fi access to all students; develop systems to provide remote services to students with disabilities; and fund professional development for teachers or other costs associated with improving services to all students during the closures. The grants could also fund repairs or replacement of technology lost or damaged while on loan to families, and even reimburse expenses incurred before the subgrants were awarded and after Florida’s March 9 emergency declaration.

Florida plans to use funding from a No Child Left Behind grant. States and charter management organizations could also use more recent grants awarded under the Every Student Succeeds Act, since both NCLB and ESSA contain waiver authority that gives the U.S. secretary of education expansive power to advance any of the purposes of the Charter School Program. This authority covers grants under the State Educational Agency, State Entity, and Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools grant programs. Without waivers, almost all program funding supports the opening costs of new charter schools. Since the pandemic is going to delay the opening of many new charter schools, additional program funds will remain unspent in the next few years.

There are other ways to use program funds creatively during the crisis. States with newer grants awarded under ESSA could repurpose funds from the 7 percent of funds in each grant that is designated for state-level support. Using this money creatively might require federal approval of adjusted budgets, depending on how the state originally proposed to use these funds. States could also increase the amount a school receives under current awards, but this would allow only support of charter schools that have a grant already.

Eventually, the feds may want to use similar waivers for other funding streams to support all schools, including non-charters. As the emergency stimulus funds make their way to districts and schools, we will learn more about how charter schools access that money. Charter supporters familiar with federal funding have already expressed concerns that some charter schools may not receive a fair share of the K-12 funding in the stimulus package.

The first waiver requests have not been approved yet. Indications are that the department is working to OK them, and we expect to hear soon. Ideally, the department will release a form like those it recently produced for other programs that make it easier for states to apply for a common set of waivers. If the first waivers are approved, other states and charter management organizations with program grants should consider applying for waivers as well. Because these waivers can take time and implementing a new grant program quickly will also be a challenge, charter supporters and program grantees might want to start work now.

The pandemic is going to challenge all schools, including charters. Questions remain about how to deliver instruction and build more engagement. These issues may continue next fall. In addition, there will likely be dramatic cuts in state and local revenue. With all these challenges, many charter schools will need help. Now is the time to consider ways we can adjust all resources, including the federal Charter School Program, to help all schools meet their students’ needs.

Alex Medler is executive director of the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers and former director of the National Charter Schools Resource Center.

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