Charter Schools are defined by their freedom from regulation and oversight, but that freedom has been so regularly abused by unscrupulous operators that it seems the U.S. Department of Education is finally deciding to crack down, under pressure in this case from Ohio’s U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.
Three months ago, on June 20, 2016, Senator Brown wrote a letter to John King, now U.S. Secretary of Education, demanding increased oversight of a large grant—$71 million—the federal Department of Education made to Ohio on September 28, 2015 to expand charter schools. The grant application had been written by David Hansen, who, by September, had already been fired by the Ohio Department of Education for hiding the abysmal academic record of the state’s so-called “dropout recovery schools” and omitting their scores from a system he was creating as the Ohio Department prepared to begin holding charter schools more accountable. Hansen had also bragged in his federal grant application that Ohio had already begun more aggressively regulating charters. After the U.S. Department of Education awarded Ohio the $71 million grant at the end of September 2015, however, it was pointed out that the Ohio legislature had not yet passed the regulations for which Hansen (in July) had given the state credit. (The Ohio Legislature later adopted the most basic and minimal charter school oversight when it passed Ohio House Bill 2 on October 7, 2015).
When Ohio Senator Brown wrote to U.S. Secretary John King in June, 2016, the $71 million Ohio grant had been put on hold for months, as the U.S. Department of Education investigated Ohio’s dealings with charter schools. In his June 20 letter, Senator Brown wrote: “In your November 2015 response letter to the members of the Ohio Congressional delegation, you outlined a number of steps ED has taken and will continue to take to verify the accuracy and completeness of ODE’s grant application. I appreciate these steps, but more must be done to provide order to the state’s chaotic charter school sector. In light of this report, I ask that you examine the performance of Ohio charter schools who have received CSP (federal Charter Schools Program) grants to determine whether grant recipients are failing or closing at a higher rate than those in other states and how the academic performance of CSP grant recipients in Ohio compares to CSP grant recipients nationwide. I further ask that when Ohio has satisfied all necessary conditions for this grant money to be released that you appoint a special monitor to review every expenditure made pursuant to this grant in order to ensure that all funds are being spent for their intended purpose. Ohio’s current lack of oversight wastes taxpayer’s money and undermines the ostensible goal of charters: providing more high-quality educational opportunities for children. There exists a pattern of waste, fraud, and abuse that is far too common and requires extra scrutiny.”
Last Wednesday, September 14, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education finally released the $71 million grant, but, as Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Plain Dealer, there are now many conditions: “In a letter to the Ohio Department of Education today, the grant was declared ‘high risk’ because of the poor academic performance of the state’s charters and the struggles the state has had in implementing portions of House Bill 2, the state’s charter reform bill passed last fall by the state legislature… The letter states: ‘As part of this high-risk designation, we are imposing certain High-Risk Special Conditions on ODE’s CSP (Charter Schools Program) SEA (State Education Agency) grant that will help ODE and the Department more clearly determine ODE’s ongoing compliance with applicable requirements’ so that it will be more transparent and so that any issues can be identified and fixed quickly.”
Here are the conditions as reported by O’Donnell:
- “(T)he state cannot give out grants to schools as it has in the past. It must have prior approval from the U.S. Department of Education before transferring any money.
- “The department must evaluate dropout recovery schools better.
- “The state must report its progress four times each year.
- “ODE must hire an independent monitor of the grant program.
- “The state must create a Grant Implementation Advisory Committee.
- “And it must do demanding ratings of the oversight agencies known as ‘sponsors’ in Ohio, but as ‘authorizers’ in most other states.”
Ohio’s problems with the controversial $71 million Charter Schools Program grant are not the first time anyone has noticed the federal Department of Education’s failure to oversee the Charter Schools Program. A year ago in June, 2015, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools—a coalition of national organizations including the 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—sent a letter to then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan complaining that while the Department had granted $1.7 billion to states for expansion of charter schools since 2009, the Department of Education’s own Inspector General had been raising alarms about the Department’s own lack of any kind of quality control.
The Alliance’s letter to Arne Duncan cited 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.
In the June 2015 letter to Arne Duncan, 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.”
Thank you, Senator Sherrod Brown for doggedly demanding that the U.S. Department of Education improve oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program. Please keep on keeping on.