Starting a Charter School? Talk to This Outfit About "Catapult" Funding

Charter school operators see themselves as education entrepreneurs. Similarly, the funders who support them see their work as a form of venture capital, populating the K-12 landscape with new approaches to elementary and secondary education designed to shake up public schooling.

Yet, as many charter operators have learned, it's one thing to have a vision for a new school and quite another to execute it. They need to develop budgets, secure facilities, hire teachers, and while charters are often exempt from some state education laws and regulations, they are bound to others. This means an investment of time and effort to learn those rules and ensure compliance. For new charter operators looking to open their first school, the challenges can seem even greater. But one charter school funder has crafted a plan to give such operators a boost.

The NewSchools Venture Fund just launched an initiative for new charter school operators with ideas for transforming K-12 education. NewSchools plans to do this through its NewSchools Catapult: Invent 2015, which the funder bills as a central element of its new national strategy. Invent 2015 is aimed at new education entrepreneurs preparing to launch their first or second charter schools. The grants are also open to district charter schools granted sufficient autonomy and district support to achieve their vision.

Invent 2015 grants will be divided into two phases: Invent and Launch. Invent is a 6- to 10-month planning grant to support charter school teams prior to the launch of a new campus. Grants under this phase will average around $100,000 and include targeted assistance for charter school teams preparing an application to open a new school. It is in the planning phase that some aspiring charter operators realize they are in for more than they bargained for, and NewSchools concedes on its website that some will choose to delay or even abandon their plans to launch a new school.

Grants under the launch phase average around $400,000 and are designed to support charter school operators from their launch to their second year of operation. Grant recipients under both phases will receive a cohort experience, joining with other charter school entrepreneurs in same phases of their work.

NewSchools cautions that the grant process under NewSchools Catapult is a competitive one. Just saying, "Hey! I plan to open a new charter school" is not enough. NewSchools is looking for innovative ideas, examples of which include, but are not limited to, competency-based instructional models, which allow students to progress at a more individualized pace, and new approaches to blended learning, which combines teacher-delivered and online instructional content. Both approaches have captured the attention of many education funders lately.

NewSchools Venture Fund practices the kind of venture philanthropy we've written about in this space. The money behind NewSchools comes from a who's who of education funders. Donors include the Gates, Carnegie, Walton, Bloomberg, Broad, Calder, Dell, Schusterman, and Schwab foundations. All have track records of supporting charter schools and other challenges to the public education status quo.

NewSchools, meanwhile, has an impressive track record when it comes to the education organizations it supports. Both the KIPP and Aspire charter organizations have received support from NewSchools, as have New Schools for New Orleans, the Reading Partners tutoring organization, and education data management and visualization firm Schoolzilla.