Two prominent charter school networks, KIPP and IDEA, netted huge grants from the federal government to fuel their expansion.

KIPP, the largest nonprofit charter network in the country, is slated to receive $86 million over five years to create 52 new schools.

IDEA, a Texas-based charter network, won an expected $116 million over five years. The network’s application says it will use the money to add grades at 56 schools and create 38 new schools across Texas; in New Orleans and East Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and in Tampa Bay, Florida.

The grants, announced last week, underscore the substantial role the federal government plays in helping charter schools expand. But they come at a perilous time politically for the charter school movement, which has seen its growth and popularity ebb in recent years. These networks’ plans for rapid growth might both run into — and fuel — political opposition, particularly in places where that growth will strain school districts’ finances.

“It certainly is not making it any easier, that’s for sure,” IDEA founder Tom Torkelson said about the political headwinds.

Thirteen other charter organizations won smaller expansion grants through the federal Charter Schools Program. Other winners included New York City’s Success Academy, Oakland’s Aspire, and three networks in New Orleans.

KIPP nets $87 million to add 52 schools

KIPP, founded in 1994 in Houston, is one of the most prominent charter networks in the country and counts 224 schools across 20 states and D.C.

“The Charter School Program’s grant will allow KIPP to open the doors to 23,000 educationally underserved students so they can have access to a world-class education in cities like New York, Houston and New Orleans,” said Enrique Chaurand, a spokesperson for the KIPP Foundation. “The grant will also support the re-opening of formerly poor-performing schools as KIPP schools.”

KIPP’s application for federal dollars says that it aims to open 52 additional schools with the grant, though does not say exactly where.

A 2015 Mathematica study found that the network led to substantial boosts in test scores and high school graduation rates, although KIPP’s edge has fallen somewhat as the network has grown. A 2017 study also found that students in most KIPP regions outperformed similar students in district schools.

The schools have faced criticism over what some see as its strict “no excuses” approach to student discipline and high suspension rates in some places. KIPP says it’s made efforts to transform its disciplinary practices.

The network has faced leadership turmoil, too: One of its founders, Mike Feinberg, was fired last year after three past allegations of sexual abuse and harassment came to light. (KIPP launched an investigation, which could neither prove nor disprove the allegations but described them as credible. Feinberg has denied the allegations and since started a new organization to help launch new charter schools.)

IDEA wins $116 million to double in size

IDEA was the other big winner, getting what appears to the largest award ever directly given to a charter network through the federal program. It’s the fifth time IDEA has won a Charter Schools Program grant, including a 2017 award of $67 million over five years.

The network was hatched in 2000 in Donna, Texas, along the Mexico border. It currently runs 79 schools serving 45,000 students. The network has dramatic growth goals, aiming to reach 100,000 students by 2022 and 250,000 students in a decade.

“To be able to grow with that speed and maintain quality, it was going to take a lot of money,” said Torkelson. “The Charter Schools Program grant — that puts a really big dent in the amount of money we need to raise.”

Indeed, the federal grants will likely be crucial to such ambitious plans. IDEA’s application notes that it has raised a total of $118 million from private philanthropy, which is dwarfed by the total it’s won in federal grants.

Torkelson said the network is aware that rapid growth could put a strain on quality.

“We’re doing a lot of things to make sure that quality is increasing, even as we’re growing,” he said, pointing to extensive training programs for teachers and principals. “If you’ve got quality leaders, which we have, if you’re developing quality teachers, which we are, if you’re replicating your model exactly, which is what we’re doing — those are the ingredients.”

Like KIPP, IDEA takes a strict approach to student behavior — even emblazoning the phrase “no excuses” on students’ uniforms. Chalkbeat has previously reported that the network has a high attrition rate — at one point, a third of students were gone within four years — and serves far fewer students with disabilities than the state of Texas as whole.

The network has a relatively low suspension rate and has drawn praise for an unusually high number of teachers of color. A 2017 study found that IDEA students outpace similar students in district schools on state exams.

Where the money comes from

The Charter Schools Program, which started in 1995 and has issued billions in competitive grants, has come under fire in recent weeks.

Congressional Democrats grilled Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos earlier this month about a critical report that pointed to a number of schools that received federal funding but subsequently closed or never opened.

The report, issued by the Network for Public Education, which opposes charter schools, highlights a previous analysis by the Department of Education showing that over 2,600 operating charter schools — or about 40 percent of all charters in the 2013-14 school year — had received a federal program grant. But 430 of those had closed, and another 699 had not opened as of that year.

“The U.S. Department of Education has not, in our opinion, been a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars in regard to its management of the Charter Schools Program,” wrote Carol Burris and Jeff Bryant, the Network for Public Education report’s authors.

“If there are any instances of waste, fraud or abuse, the Department will certainly address them, but this so-called study was funded and promoted by those who have a political agenda against charters and its ‘results’ need to be taken with a grain of salt,” Liz Hill, a Department of Education spokesperson, said in an email.

Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said federal grants are a crucial source of funding for start-up schools and that closures of ineffective schools are signs that the charter model is working.

“In many states and cities it’s potentially the only source of start-up dollars that schools receive,” she said. “When you first open a school, unless you come into the work with your own money, you don’t have any way of paying for certain things.”

Congress allocated $440 million to the program in the latest federal budget, a 10 percent increase from the previous year, and the Trump administration is asking for another increase this year.

The story has been updated to include to KIPP’s application for federal dollars, which was posted to the Department of Education’s website after this story published.