On September 28, 2015, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it was awarding nearly $335 million in grant funds to its Charter School Programs and that Illinois is one of 8 state education agencies receiving an award of funds. The Illinois State Board of Education submitted its grant proposal in Spring 2015, and was selected yesterday to receive a total recommended award of $42 Million, with a $21 Million award for Fiscal Year 2015.

Charter School Program Grants

The U.S. Department of Education’s Charter School Programs grant funds work to strengthen the quality and accountability of charter schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s press release, the funding will enable the grantees to “support approximately 400 new and expanded public charter schools” across the nation. In addition to the state-level awards, 12 charter management organizations (“CMOs”) also received awards, including Illinois’ Lawndale Educational and Regional Network and the Noble Network of Charter Schools. The U.S. Department of Education’s press release announcing the awards is available here.

Dear Colleague Letter

In conjunction with the release of the federal grant funds, the U.S. Department of Education released a five-page Dear Colleague Letter (“Letter”), available here. The Letter emphasizes the need for strong fiscal monitoring and oversight of public charter schools to ensure that charter schools are operating within State and federal controls.

The Letter highlights recent conflicts of interests identified by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General between charter schools and management organizations – especially for-profit management organizations, which cannot be direct recipients of federal funds. Based upon this identified issue, the Letter suggests additional State controls regarding operational oversight, CMO and for-profit management organization transparency, and strong state authorizing practices. The U.S. Department of Education’s recommendation for strong state authorizing practices is especially germane in Illinois given our State’s recent legislative interest in charter authorizing practices. As a review, the Illinois State Charter School Commission was established in 2011 through the passage of Public Act 97-0152. That Act called for an independent body comprised of nine appointed members – the Commission – to have the responsibility for hearing charter appeals/denials from local boards of education. In 2013, HB 3754 and SB 2627 sought to remove the Illinois State Charter School Commission’s power to hear appeals of denials from local boards of education. This session, HB 0397 again seeks to remove certain authority of the Illinois State Charter School Commission in relation to charter appeals/denials from the local boards of education, and seeks to have local decisions appealable in court under Illinois Administrative Review Law. HB 0397 was passed by the House in April 2015, but no vote was taken by the Senate. We will provide any updates on this legislation, especially when the legislature reconvenes in January 2016.

Finally, the Letter includes a “best practices” resource, which includes state-level best practices for authorization, accountability, and innovation and improvement. The best practices resource also provides links to certain U.S. Department of Education webinars relating to charter school monitoring and oversight.