Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Education announced $65 million in new grants as this year’s federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) competition gets underway. CSP awards are for one of several grant programs; grants awarded this week are for “Charter Management Organizations for the Replication and Expansion of High Quality Charter Schools.” Applications by states, for example, are being accepted until May 15 for the larger CSP State Entities Competition.
While the Department’s announcement declares that $65 million is being awarded to 13 Charter Management Organizations headquartered in Texas, California, Georgia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Florida, and Connecticut, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reports that these awards will eventually add up to more than $200 million over the five year life of the grants.
The $65 million figure, Barnum reports, includes only the part of each five-year grant that has already been appropriated by Congress, but the amount is expected by the Department to grow as Congress formally appropriates the money over the five year term of the grants. For example, while the Department’s announcement declares that the largest grant recipient, IDEA charter schools has been granted $8.1 million, Barnum reports instead that IDEA charters will receive $72 million over five years assuming that Congress continues to appropriate the funds.
After questions arose about the disparity between the Department’s numbers and Barnum’s report, Barnum answered on twitter: “Full details on the grants (Numbers seem different because ED’s are based on just what has already been appropriated, whereas story focuses on the full five-year awards, which are conditional on appropriation.)”
The Charter Schools Program grants awarded last week are for Charter Management Organizations to “replicate and expand high-quality charter schools.” There are, of course, a lot of questions about the definition of high quality—questions about hidden screens used by various charter schools to accept the students most likely to fit the school’s expectations, the school’s curriculum, the pedagogical style, the student discipline practices and, of course, the financial practices and management of particular charter chains.
Barnum describes IDEA charter schools and the expansion plans described in its grant application: “The Texas-based IDEA network plans to expand in Texas as well as Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Cincinnati, Ohio. The network says it plans to add more than 100 new schools and aspires to become the ‘largest educator of low-income college graduates in every region where IDEA operates schools’… IDEA was recently in the news because of plans to spend millions on a private jet; the plan was eventually scrapped and its CEO apologized.”
Reporting for Forbes magazine, Peter Greene provides more details about IDEA’s waste of money on expenses that don’t seem to relate to the needs of its students. The company’s CEO has said the school aspires to be entrepreneurial: “IDEA was just in the news a few months ago for spending practices that included a $2 million luxury jet and $400K for tickets and a luxury box at San Antonio’s AT&T Center. Their CEO described these practices as ‘hard to defend,’ although he also said there was a ‘business case’ for them. IDEA has been accused of using a teaching method that is focused on test prep, and their CEO has said that he doesn’t believe in dyslexia.”
The federal Charter Schools Program has become extremely controversial as researchers have examined its granting practices and the Department of Education’s failure to oversee the schools which have received startup grants since the program was established 25 years ago. Here are some of the details from Asleep at the Wheel, a report released in March 2019, by the Network for Public Education: “The CSP… was established in 1994 to kick-start the creation of new charter schools…. Over its 25-year existence, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that the program has offered federal dollars to as many as 40 percent of charter schools.” The Network for Public Education continued its investigation and in a December 2019 follow-up, Still Asleep at the Wheel, declares that 37 percent of charter schools that received CSP funds either never opened or failed and have now disappeared: “It is impossible to document total waste for the entire 25 year program because the Department never required the states to report the names of funded schools until 2006. However, we have now documented $504,517,391… that was awarded to schools between 2006-2014 that never opened or that have been closed… 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.”
Asleep at the Wheel details real problems in the operation of many charter schools and the department’s failure carefully to investigate the promises made in the applications submitted: “While congressional appropriations to the CSP continue to climb, our investigation… found that not only does grant money awarded to charters by the CSP continue to go to schools that never open or quickly close, but hundreds of millions of dollars have been provided to schools that don’t resemble ‘high quality’ schools, including many that engage in exclusionary practices that keep some economically disadvantaged students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners (ELL) out. Through our detailed examination of the CSP’s application process, we found a system in which the program awards grants based on which schools can write (or hire someone to write) the most compelling narrative in its application, knowing that the facts they present will never be checked. As we compared information on state databases and school websites with application data, we found startling discrepancies between what charter applicants promised and what they ultimately delivered. Time and again, huge sums of grant money have been awarded to charter schools that have inadequate business plans, discriminatory enrollment practices, or no evidence of strong demand for the school from the surrounding community.”
In Still Asleep at the Wheel, the Network for Public Education concludes: “The staggering amount spent on schools that have closed or never opened, as well as those that have engaged in fraud, is nothing short of a national scandal. As public dollars are diverted from public schools, the students who attend their neighborhood schools have fewer resources. It is time to put on the brakes and chart a new course.”
Surely in April 2020, as public schools across the United States are now shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic, and public schools are predicted to face alarming shortages of funds due to the catastrophic collapse of the state education budgets on which they depend, the U.S. Department of Education ought to establish a moratorium on the Charter Schools Program instead of awarding millions of dollars to privately operated charters that siphon essential dollars out of the school districts where they are located.