Back in 2010, I was at a meeting where I heard U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan say, “Good charters are part of the solution. Bad charters are part of the problem.” He did not, at that time or any other time I’ve heard, discuss what to do about regulating the bad charters he said are part of the problem. While the federal Race to the Top competition prioritized grant proposals from the states that agreed to remove caps on the authorization of new charter schools, the federal government has left it up to the states to do something about the bad charters. In my state anyway, as this blog pointed out yesterday, the state legislature, beholden for political contributions to the rich owners of the for-profit Charter Management Organizations, has chosen to abstain from regulating charters to prevent academic malpractice and financial malfeasance.
Last Friday in the Washington Post, Lindsey Layton reported that a coalition of education and labor organizations has written to Secretary Arne Duncan to demand that the Department of Education find a way to protect our nation’s public schools and to protect the huge investment the Department itself continues to make to expand and develop charter schools: “The department has given $1.7 billion in grants to charter schools since fiscal 2009, according to an agency spokeswoman. In its budget request for 2016, the Obama administration is seeking $375 million for the program—a 48 percent increase over current funding levels.”
In their letter to Secretary Duncan, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools—American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Educational Justice, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Service Employees International Union—cites formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.” The OIG’s 2012 audit, the members of the Alliance explain, discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight. The State Education Agencies that lack capacity to manage the programs are the 50 state departments of education. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement was, during the time of the audits, managed by Jim Shelton, who later became Deputy Secretary and who was recently the subject of this blog.
The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools enumerates the problems discovered by the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General: that the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) did not maintain records of the charter schools funded through grants to states, that OII “lacked internal controls and adequate training in fiscal and program monitoring,” that none of the three states selected as samples for investigation by the Office of Inspector General—Arizona, California, and Florida—sufficiently monitored the charter schools funded through the Department of Education’s State Education Agency grants, that 26 charter schools in these three states were shown by the Office of Inspector General to have closed after being awarded $7 million, and that even when the schools closed, nobody tracked “what happened to assets that had been purchased with federal funds.”
The Alliance to Reclaim our Schools asks Secretary Duncan to report on the steps the Department has taken to date to address the problems raised in the Department’s Office of Inspector General audits—the most recent completed in 2012.
Additionally the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools asks the Secretary of Education to investigate the following concerns: “For example, is the Department of Education tracking the impacts of the program on student outcomes? Nationally, charter schools are disproportionately located in communities of color. Why? And they serve disproportionately fewer English Language Learners and students with disabilities. How does the Department justify these disparities? Would the $3.3 billion that has been spent on this program over the last 20 years have been better spent strengthening our traditional public schools rather than creating new, privately operated ones?”
The Alliance requests that, “the Department of Education begin, with any new grants released to State Education Agencies, to maintain publicly accessible records of which schools receive these funds, the students served, and the operational and academic performance of each school.”
Finally the Alliance calls for a moratorium on the awarding of federal funds to charter schools until federal oversight is improved. “Our students and communities are not served when federal funding for education is distributed without accountability or transparency.”