On Monday, the Network for Public Education published a new, in depth report on the scandalous waste of federal funds disseminated since 1995 through the federal Charter Schools Program. The report, Still Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Results in a Pileup of Fraud and Waste, is posted along with interactive maps, in which you can examine case studies of the waste of federal funds in each of the 43 states where the federal government has awarded Charter Schools Program (CSP) grants.
Last spring, the Network for Public Education released an earlier report, Asleep at the Wheel, which tracked outrageous waste of federal funds disseminated in federal CSP grants to states. The stated purpose of state level CSP grants is to stimulate startups of new charter schools. CSP grants to the big charter management organizations are intended to help them expand by sponsoring additional schools.
Why has the Network for Public Education published a second investigative report on the federal charter schools program? “When our first report was issued, we were dismayed that rather than investigate our claims, Secretary DeVos instead dismissed the report as ‘political.’ It became clear that negligence in the administration of the program was not caused by a lack of awareness or capacity, but was rather accepted practice by the Department when it came to Charter Schools Program grants. We therefore continued our investigation with three objectives. The first was to move beyond our estimation of waste, and document the amount of federal tax dollars that have been spent on defunct schools.”
NPE continues: “Our second objective was to determine how it could be possible that such a large number of schools that never opened received funding from the federal government… After gaining access to some of the receipts submitted by the proposers of Michigan ghost charter schools, we identified a pattern of tens of thousands of dollars going to invoices created by the developers themselves, payments to for-profit consulting and education management organizations, and for the purchase of laptops, printers and desks for schools that had not even been authorized to open. We have concluded that the practice of allowing unauthorized schools to receive funds, which has been in effect since 2001, has become a magnet for grifters, consultants and charter entrepreneurs who see an easy way to cash-in. The responsibility for this waste lies at the feet of the U.S. Department of Education and the state agencies that do not put their own restrictions on the grants.”
Here are the specific findings of NPE’s new report published this week:
- “Documented charter school closures and the waste of federal funds exceeds our first report’s estimations. We believed that about 1,000 recipient charters were defunct. However, using the 2015 database… we identified 1,779 grantee schools that either never opened or had shut down. The number of non-operational recipients, across 25 years of the program is inevitably in the thousands.” The new report estimates that $1.17 billion in federal funds was awarded for schools that either never opened or eventually shut down.
- “The disbursement of over one billion dollars during the program’s first decade was never monitored for its impact or results. There is no record of which schools received the funds. From 1995 to 2005, enormous funds were pushed out to the states… Yet the Department has no complete record of which schools received funding during the program’s early years, because it never required the states to report the names of subgrantee schools or their status.” (emphasis in the original)
- The overall failure rate of schools funded with Charter Schools Program dollars was 37 percent. An appendix lists each state’s failure rate by percentage of dollars wasted on now-closed schools and the total amount of federal tax dollars lost from grants to each state. States with some of the highest percentage and amount of dollars lost on now-closed schools are California with 37% of CSP funded schools closed and $102,879,832 wasted; Ohio with 41% of CSP funded schools closed and $36,679,901 wasted; and Wisconsin with 46% of CSP funded schools closed and $48,621,668 wasted.
- “Five hundred thirty-seven (537) schools listed in the database never opened at all. Many received over $100,000 in federal funds. Since 2001, charter school entrepreneurs have been eligible to receive CSP grants before they have even identified an authorizer or submitted a detailed application to open a school. In total, we identified 28 states that had at least one charter school… that never enrolled even one student for one day and yet had received federal funds.”
- “Although Congress forbids for-profit operators from directly receiving CSP grants, they still benefit by having their schools apply. Although we could not identify every charter in the CSP database that was run by a for-profit management company, we were able to identify those run by the large for-profit chains including Academica, K12, National Heritage Academies, White Hat and Charter Schools USA.”
The report’s authors uncovered disturbing details about the expansion of the federal Charter Schools Program since Betsy DeVos was appointed U.S. Secretary of Education: “Since Betsy DeVos has been in charge, five of the 20 grants from the State Entities program, totaling $101,571,458 have gone not to state government agencies, but to private organizations whose mission is charter advocacy and support.. In addition to opening up the State Entities program to private recipients, the Department’s new ‘National Dissemination’ grants have been a financial windfall for charter advocacy groups. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools received a $2.38 million grant to create a charter facility center… The National Alliance was not alone. Eight dissemination grants were offered to private organizations in 2019, totaling $16 million….” including, “the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the California Charter Schools Association. In essence, the Department is now funding groups that lobby for more funding for the organizations they represent and for themselves.”
What are the Network for Public Education’s recommendations: “We… strongly recommend that Congress end appropriations for new charter school grants in the upcoming budget and continue funding only for obligated amounts only to legitimate projects. Once those grants have been closed, we recommend that the CSP be ended…. We also recommend thorough audits by Congress of previous grant awards, the establishment of regulations to ensure grant awards still under term are being responsibly carried out, and that misspent money is returned to the federal coffers.”
* * * * *
The Network for Public Education’ timed this week’s release of its new report perfectly. Tomorrow, Saturday, December 14, at 10 AM (Eastern), in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a coalition of national organizations will convene the Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All. At the event, eight of the Democrats running for President will be expected to explain how they will support public schools across the United States.
MSNBC will moderate and exclusively livestream the forum. By tuning in, you will be able to be present yourself as Sen. Michael Bennet, Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren explain how, if elected, they will use the tools of federal policy to support public education. Candidates will surely be asked about the new NPE report which traces waste and fraud in the federal Charter Schools Program. Candidates will also be expected to explain whether and how they will lead the country away from the kind of school privatization at public expense that has been the lifelong goal of the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
National organizations collaborating to convene tomorrow’s forum are the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education—Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino.