Earlier this week, this blog explored what Betsy DeVos hopes will be a major restructure in the U.S. Department of Education. That she is considering the restructure of the department became clear in the President’s FY21 budget proposal, which collapses Title I into a huge block grant with 28 other programs, and cuts funding for these combined programs by $4.7 billion. Title I is the Department’s largest program and the centerpiece of the federal government’s primary role in public education—ensuring that whatever happens in the states, the federal government will supplement programming to assist schools serving concentrations of very poor children. In a related responsibility (through the Department’s Office for Civil Rights), the U.S. Department of Education’s mission is also to protect the educational rights of children our society has historically marginalized. These programs, begun in the 1960s, grew out of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty.
Congressional failure to enact President Trump’s budgets over the past three years suggests that passage of the President’s proposed federal budget for the 2021 fiscal year is also unlikely. However, a budget proposal is a statement of an administration’s priorities. The idea that Trump and DeVos want to mess with Title I should alert Congress to be very careful.
There is another shocker in Trump’s federal FY21 federal budget proposal that we ought to notice: The President and the Secretary of Education propose to end the federal Charter Schools Program as a stand alone funding line. Since 1994, the Department of Education has spent billions of dollars to startup and expand the number of charter schools across the states. Why is an Education Secretary who insistently promotes school choice proposing a budget that phases out the Charter Schools Program? Some are speculating that DeVos prefers vouchers, and she is putting all of her effort in the fourth year of this administration into pushing her Education Freedom Scholarship Tuition-Tax-Credit vouchers.
I believe, additionally, that public opinion has shifted as the exposure of problems in the charter school sector has made charter schools increasingly difficult to defend. An organization that may have contributed to a primary shift in public opinion and undermined support for charter schools in Congress is the Network for Public Education (NPE) and it’s dogged executive director and researcher Carol Burris. There is no reason to believe that Betsy DeVos herself would take NPE seriously, but, thanks to NPE, far fewer people are likely to be sorry that the federal Charter Schools Program seems to be on the chopping block.
NPE’s School Privatization Explained Toolkit (2017) remains the best basic primer for the general public on all the ways the Friedman Foundation (now EdChoice), Jeb Bush and his ExcelinEd Foundation, the American Federation for Children which Betsy DeVos founded, and the American Legislative Exchange Council have distorted our national conversation about education—to undermine support for public education and elevate the reputation of privatized alternatives (always publicly funded). In a series of two-page briefs, the toolkit addresses the following questions:
- Are charter schools truly public schools?
- Do charter schools and school vouchers “hurt” public schools?
- Do charter schools get better academic results than public schools?
- Are charter schools and vouchers a civil rights cause?
- Are charter schools “more accountable” than public schools?
- Do charter schools profit from educating students?
- Do school vouchers help kids in struggling schools?
- Are charter schools innovative?
- Are online charter schools good options for families?
- Do “Education Savings Accounts” lead to better results for families?
- Do education tax credit scholarships provide opportunity?
- Are tax credit scholarships a voucher by a different name?
- Do charter schools and vouchers save money?
Later in 2017, following months of research and extensive travel to examine California’s charter school sector on the ground, Carol Burris penned an in-depth report about what she discovered: Charters and Consequences. Like most other people who care about school privatization, I had read exposes in various newspapers here in my home state of Ohio and elsewhere, but Burris drew conclusions about charter schools as an education sector. I remember my amazement about the extent of underhanded efforts by tiny, public, California elementary school districts sponsoring storefront charter schools in shopping malls to draw students from neighboring public school districts and yield “sponsorship fees” to help pad the sponsoring school districts’ meager budgets. Here are just some of the findings Burris summarizes in the introduction: “There are national chains that are corporately managed and ‘mom and pop’ charters. There is instability as charters open and close. About 1 in 5 are for-profit. Some have a real estate arm that buys buildings, then rents them to their own schools at exorbitant rates. Still others are not-for-profit fronts that are managed by for-profit corporations.”
2018 brought NPE’s examination of the funders of the charter school and privatization movement: Hijacked by Billionaires: How the Super Rich Buy Elections to Undermine Public Schools. The report begins with an index of billionaires funding charter-friendly candidates for local school boards and other elected positions in state government: Reed Hastings, the Walton Family, the Fisher family, the Bloomberg family, the Gates family, Eli Broad, Paul Allen, the Arnold family, the Bezos family and others. Politicians supported by these and other donors, for example, charterized the schools in Newark, funded a long fight to bring charter schools to Washington state, and promoted a pro-charter candidate for governor of Rhode Island. This report also covers New York hedge fund managers supporting a pro-charter governor in New York.
In another 2018 report, Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools, NPE joined with the Schott Foundation for Public Education to examine “our nation’s commitment to democracy by assessing the privatization programs in the 50 states and the District of Columbia with the goal of not only highlighting the benefits of a public school education, but comparing the accountability, transparency, and civil rights protections offered students in the public school setting versus the private school setting.”
Then in March of 2019, NPE exposed outrageous problems in the federal Charter Schools Program itself—a program administered by the U.S. Department of Education. NPE’s report, Asleep at the Wheel, demonstrated that the federal Charter Schools Program has awarded $4 billion federal tax dollars to start or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools that have been started across the country since the inception of the program in 1994. Roughly a third of all charter schools receiving Charter Schools Program grants never opened or have been subsequently shut down.
NPE continued to probe details of the program in a second report, Still Asleep at the Wheel, released in December, 2019. After further data analysis, NPE discovered that the number of never-opened or eventually closed schools was even larger than its earlier report identified. The second report also documented that not all the federal money has been supporting the schools themselves: “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.”
Finally, NPE has insistently kept stories of corruption and mismanagement in charter schools in front of the public. NPE’s website features a page devoted to each week’s charter school problems from city to city: Another Day, Another Charter School Scandal. And Burris has provided regular summaries for readers who are overwhelmed by a succession of news reports on scandals.
The Network for Public Education has expanded awareness that charter schools are parasites sucking essential dollars from the public school districts where they are located; that while some predicted the expansion of charter schools would improve academic achievement on a broad scale, children in traditional public schools and charter schools perform about the same; that opposing for-profit charter schools misses the point because in most states the charter schools themselves must be nonprofits, but the nonprofit boards of directors of these schools may hire for-profit management companies to operate the schools; and that the charter school sector is saturated with corruption and malfeasance. And in this past year, NPE has exposed abuses in the federal Charter Schools Program, which has operated essentially as a kind of venture capital fund, created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits, as a substitute for system-wide public operation of the public schools.
We will likely never know why, in its FY21 budget request, the Department of Education collapsed the Charter Schools Program—without a designated funding stream—into a huge block grant with over two dozen other programs. And it may be that, in an election year, Congress will ignore the budget proposal from DeVos and Trump which which omits designated funding for the Charter Schools Program.
But the Network for Public Education deserves credit for raising awareness about the reality beneath the rhetoric regarding charter schools. There is considerably more skepticism these days than there was back in 2017 before NPE launched this campaign.