Lack of Oversight of Federal Charter Schools Program Cheats Taxpayers, Students, Families, and Local Public Schools

The impact of federal investment in the Charter Schools Program has been in the news this month thanks to the Network for Public Education’s stunning new report, Asleep at the Wheel, which exposes the number of schools across the states that received millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program but never opened or, after opening, subsequently shut down.  The Network for Public Education (NPE) documents the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars out of the total $4 billion that has been spent on the Charter Schools Program (CSP), which has been operated with an outrageous absence of oversight. A third of the schools whose startup or expansion was seeded by the CSP are currently not in operation.

Last week the Network for Public Education expanded its coverage of abuses in the Charter Schools Program by breaking down the numbers to show how much money was wasted in five of the states. (NPE says it will continue to break down the numbers in upcoming weeks for the rest of the 44 states and the District of Columbia which have charter schools.)  Jeff Bryant follows up this week by summarizing the percentage of failure in CSP-funded schools in the five target states. In Michigan, 42 percent of the federal dollars granted by CSP were wasted on schools that never opened or subsequently closed. The percentage of failure was similar in Ohio (40 percent), Louisiana (46 percent), California (38 percent), and Florida (36 percent).

Responding to the Network for Public Education’s report, charter school promoter Nina Rees justifies the federal Charter Schools Program as a crucial source of venture capital to jump start and expand a privately operated but publicly funded education sector.  Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum shares Rees’ assessment: “Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said federal grants are a crucial source of funding for start-up schools and that closures of ineffective schools are signs that the charter model is working.”

Barnum adds that right at the end of March, the U.S. Department of Education announced another category of new five-year grants, this time to the giant Charter School Management Organizations (CMOs).  The list posted on the Department of Education’s website includes several of the usual subjects. KIPP schools will receive $86,311,042 over the next five years to add what Barnum reports are 52 new schools.  IDEA, a charter chain in Texas, Louisiana and Florida, will receive $116,755,848 over five years to double its size.  Barnum  explains: “IDEA is the other big winner, getting what appears to be the largest award ever directly given to a charter network through the federal program…Like KIPP, IDEA takes a strict approach to student behavior—even emblazoning the phrase ‘no excuses’ on students’ uniforms. Chalkbeat has previously reported that the network has a high attrition rate—at one point, a third of students were gone within four years—and serves far fewer students with disabilities than the state of Texas as a whole.”

In the next five years, New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools will also receive a federal Charter Schools Program grant—$9,842,050. The award comes at the same time Chalkbeat reports that Success Academies was sued again this week by a family alleging that their child was on one of Success Academies’ much reported “got to go lists.”  It has long been reported that when students are a particularly poor fit or students are especially disruptive, Success Academies repeatedly suspends or punishes the students until despairing parents withdraw the students from the schools.

In his report on the federal grants to the big Charter Management Organizations, Barnum wonders if the size of these grants may fuel what appears to be a growing backlash against the expansion of charter schools: “The grants… underscore the substantial role the federal government plays in helping charter schools expand. But they come at a perilous time politically for the charter school movement, which has seen its growth and popularity ebb in recent years. These networks’ plans for rapid growth might both run into—and fuel—political opposition, particularly in places where that growth will strain school districts’ finances.”

The effect of charter school expansion is a serious threat to the finances of traditional public school districts. When students leave a public school system to attend a charter school they carry away money from the school district’s budget. There are charter promoters who allege that, because the exiting students no longer require the services public school districts are providing, the fiscal impact is neutral.  However, the political economist, Gordon Lafer counters this argument forcefully in a report published a year ago by In the Public Interest: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case.”

Lafer continues, detailing the costs public school districts cannot immediately cut when students leave for charter schools: “If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

Finally, of course, one must consider the students whose educational needs are abandoned when a charter school abruptly closes. Writing about the individual schools which received money under State Education Agency grants—the schools covered in NPE’s new Asleep at the Wheel report, Jeff Bryant explains: “With every new charter school that said it would open and didn’t, or opened and then quickly closed, there were families and kids who fell for the marketing pitch and ran after promises of new and better educational opportunities that turned out to be a mirage. In a California community, one of the schools that received a $600,000 grant, Iftin University Prep High School in San Diego, closed mid-year, abandoning the remaining students and disbanding the senior class, who then had to find other schools to complete their high school diplomas… In Michigan, a Detroit charter school, University Yes Academy, that received an $830,000 CSP grant, promised high school students academic courses and school programs it never delivered. The school had five principals in three years.  An audit of the school could not account for $300,000 of Title I funds. After the money went missing, the school switched to a different management firm run by the same person. Then the school’s contract was transferred to a third management firm, which closed the school a week before classes were to start, leaving students and families stranded and high school seniors uncertain of how they would graduate….”

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High School Students Stand Up for Press Freedom and Public Education

A society’s public institutions reflect the strengths and also the faults and sins of the culture they embody. For this reason, America’s public schools that serve over 50 million children in every kind of community will never be perfect. There will be instances of mediocrity and examples of poor school administration and poor teaching. There will be schools stuck in the past and schools where there is sexism and racism—schools where poor children aren’t served up the kind of curriculum that rich children are offered—schools where families persist in segregating their children from others who are “not like them.”  We must expose the problems in our schools and surely, as a society, we are obligated to address our schools’ faults and problems.

But something else has happened in America as we have permitted advocates for privatization to capture our national imagination. How did so many come to view public schools as a problem?  How did we accept the terms “failing schools” and “failing teachers”?  How did we allow policymakers in our very unequal society to extol privately operated schools as a solution?  The education writer and UCLA professor of education, Mike Rose, demands that we be more discerning as we confront the “failing schools” conventional wisdom: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of the public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.” (Why School? p. 203)

After he spent four years visiting public school classrooms across the United States—urban schools, rural schools, Midwestern, Eastern, Western, Southern and border schools, and after observing hundreds of public school teachers from place to place, Rose celebrated the schools he had visited in a wonderful book, Possible Lives: “One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed, out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.” In the book’s preface, Rose reflects on the learning moments he witnessed during his journey: “The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p. xxviii)  Later in the book, Rose continues: “When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.” (Possible Lives, p. 433)

These days most of us do not have the kind of experience Rose acquired in four years of visiting public schools. Schools have been forced to worry about security and to lock kids safely in their classrooms. Most of us might think of what happens at school—if we think about it at all—only as we remember our own experiences, good and bad.

But sometimes, evidence of what students are learning finds its way outside the school and into the press. It happened last week in Lexington, Kentucky when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to town to participate in a roundtable conversation with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who made a name for himself last year supporting a bill undermining teachers’ pensions.

At the roundtable conversation, Governor Bevin and Secretary DeVos were slated to discuss her new proposal for a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit, a plan that would divert federal tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers. There is no expectation that Congress will adopt DeVos’s new proposal for the tax credit plan she calls “Education Freedom Scholarships,” but she has been on-tour promoting her idea. We can presume she expected a sympathetic ear from Gov. Matt Bevin. Last year Kentucky’s teachers went out on strike to protest his education policies, and this year they have been staging sick-outs to protest several bills in the state legislature—one of them to set up a statewide private school voucher program. All year Bevin has been on the attack against the state’s public school teachers. Covering Bevin’s re-election campaign, Fox News describes Bevin’s political future as threatened by his persistent attacks on schoolteachers.

Governor Bevin’s roundtable conversation with Betsy DeVos might not have been widely noticed, covered as it was supposed to be by a group of invited journalists, but the members of the editorial board of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s Lamplighter, a public high school newspaper, received permission to leave school to cover the 11:00 AM event.  Despite “PRESS” identification tags, they were turned away at the door because they were unable to present one of the special invitations.  Instead of covering the event, the high school journalists did some thinking and some research, and penned a scathing high school newspaper editorial demonstrating not only the quality of their public school training as journalists but also their education in civics along with considerable curiosity about the meaning of their experience trying to cover what should have been a public event.

The Lamplighter editorial, No Seat at the Roundtable, and its high school authors became the subject of Monday’s Washington Post, Morning Mix column: “Unable to document the event, or query DeVos in person, they set about investigating the circumstances of her private appearance at the public community college. Ultimately, they penned an editorial flaying the education secretary and the Kentucky governor, accusing them of paying lip service to the needs of students while excluding them from the conversation.”

In their editorial, the students describe what happened as they encountered the guard at the entrance to the meeting they had set out to cover. Notice the role of the students’ journalism teacher and advisor to help them explore and plan their actions: “We presented our school identification badges and showed him our press credentials. He nodded as if that would be enough, but then asked us if we had an invitation.  We looked at each other, eyes wide with surprise. Invitation? For a roundtable discussion on education? ‘Yes, this event is invitation only,’ he said and then waved us away.  At this point, we pulled over and contacted our adviser, Mrs. Wendy Turner. She instructed us to try again and to explain that we were there as press to cover the event for our school newspaper. We at least needed to understand why were were not allowed in, and why it was never publicized as ‘invitation only.’  We watched as the same man waved other drivers through without stopping them, but he stopped us again.  Instead of listening to our questions, he just repeated, ‘Sorry.  It’s invitation only.’… We scrambled to get ourselves together because we were caught off guard, and we were in a hurry to produce anything we could to cover the event and to meet our deadline… After more research, we found mentioned on the government website that the meeting needed an RSVP, but there was no mention of an invitation.  How do you RSVP when there is no invitation?  On the web site, it also stated that the roundtable was an ‘open press event.'”

The Lamplighter‘s editors continue: “Doesn’t ‘open press’ imply ‘open to ALL press’ including students? We are student journalists who wanted to cover an event in our community featuring the Secretary of Education, but ironically we couldn’t get in without an invitation… Why was this information (the press notice about the meeting the next day) only shared a little more than 24 hours before the event?  When the Secretary of Education is visiting your city, you’d think you’d have a little more of a heads up.  We can’t help but suspect that the intention was to prevent people from attending.  Also, it was held at 11 AM on a Wednesday.  What student or educator is free at that time?  And as students, we are the ones who are going to be affected by the proposed changes discussed at the roundtable, yet we were not allowed inside.  How odd is that, even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away? We expected the event to be intense. We expected there to be a lot of information to cover. But not being able to exercise our rights under the First Amendment was something we never thought would happen.  We weren’t prepared for that.”

Before they wrote their editorial, the student journalists did more work to track the story: “We emailed FCPS (Fayette County Public Schools) Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.  Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders—educators, students, and parents.  Fayette County School Board member Tyler Murphy even took to his Twitter to satirize the lack of time DeVos and Bevin took to visit local public school educators. When we reached out to him via email to explain what we experienced, he responded: ‘If Secretary DeVos wanted a true understanding of our public schools, she should hear from the people who participate in it every day.'”

The students also followed up with journalists who were admitted to the event.  They explore in some detail comments reported in the local press about the event from Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Wayne Lewis, someone who endorses DeVos’s proposed federal tuition tax credit voucher proposal. They also report that one high school student attended the roundtable—a scholarship student from Mercy Academy, a Louisville religious high school. This student is quoted in the Lamplighter report: “I was the only student at the table and I was invited because of a scholarship program I was a part of in Louisville.”

The student journalists conclude their editorial: “The bottom line is that we do not think that it is fair to have a closed roundtable about education when it affects thousands of Kentucky teachers, students, and parents.”

The reporter for the Washington-Post‘s Morning Mix, Isaac Stanley-Becker comments on the students’ experience and the way they responded as journalists: “As their travails became the story, the students began to see the terms of the event as emblematic of the approach of the education secretary, who has been criticized as displaying only cursory understanding of the subjects in her remit… Still, they sounded an optimistic note.  Though they were unable to gain the experience they had set out to acquire, they had learned a lesson nonetheless. ‘We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary… We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.'”

The public high school newspaper editors of the Lamplighter exemplify education theorist Henry Giroux’s idea of the value of quality, universal public education. Commenting on the importance of what striking public school teachers—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Los Angeles and Oakland—have been trying to protect, Giroux writes: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy.”

Federal Charter Schools Program Wasted Nearly $36 Million on Ohio Schools That Never Opened or Soon Closed

Several weeks ago the Network for Public Education (NPE) released Asleep at the Wheel, a major report on the lack of accountability and subsequent waste and fraud in the federal Charter Schools Program. At the end of last week as part of a letter addressed to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (and published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post), Carol Burris the executive director of NPE, and Diane Ravitch began releasing state-by-state lists of never-opened or eventually shut-down charter schools that received seed money between 2006 and 2014 from the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). The numbers are shocking. In my state, Ohio, between 2006 and 2014, the amount of Charter Schools Program money spent on charter schools that never opened or eventually closed amounts to nearly $36 million.

Here is a brief review of the Network for Public Education’s findings in last month’s Asleep at the Wheel report.  A series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated the Charter Schools Program (part of the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education) 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 public operation of the public schools. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the CSP has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up 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 across the country. The CSP has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants. The Network for Public Education found that the CSP has spent over a $1 billion on schools that never opened or were opened and subsequently shut down: “The CSP’s own analysis from 2006-2014 of its direct and state pass-through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.”

I suppose the idea is that if you scatter hundreds of seeds across a state, they’ll grow and enrich the educational environment.  But as I examine Ohio’s list of failed or never-opened, CSP-funded charter schools, I can see that the seeds were scattered so widely that they weren’t particularly noticeable even when they came up. Unless there was a splashy scandal or a school was widely advertised on the side of city buses, nobody would have had any idea of the existence or failure of most of the seeds that did come up. And anyway a lot of them never sprouted at all.  Because the Charter Schools Program has lacked oversight from the U.S. Department of Education and because Ohio’s charter schools are poorly regulated by a large number of nonprofit agencies that serve as sponsors, the Ohio press has—until NPE’s Asleep at the Wheel report—not to my knowledge reported that the U.S. Department of Education is funding a lot of failed or never-opened schools. Until now, the failure of this program has been virtually invisible.

In the the list of failed or never-opened Ohio charter schools released last Friday by the Network for Public Education, NPE reports: “Two hundred ninety-three Ohio charter schools were awarded grants through the U.S. Department of Education’s (U.S. DOE) Charter Schools Program (CSP) from money that the U.S. Department of Education gave to the states between 2006-2014.  At this time, at least 117 (40%) of those (Ohio) charter schools were closed or never opened at all.” NPE explains that 20 of the Ohio charter schools on the list never opened; ninety-seven of the Ohio charter schools receiving CSP grants opened but subsequently shut down.

I suspect that like me, hardly anybody in Ohio has heard of most of the 20 schools that received CSP funding but never opened. Here are their names: Academy for Urban Solutions; Buckeye Academy; Central Ohio Early College Academy; Cleveland Arts and Literature Academy; Cleveland Lighthouse Charter Community School West; Columbus Entrepreneurial Academy; Cuyahoga Valley Academy; Medina City Schools Technology School; New Albany School for Performing Arts Middle School 6-8; Phoenix Village Academy Secondary 2; Rising Star Elementary School; School of Tomorrow; Summit Academy Community Schools in Alliance, Marion, Massillon, Columbus, and Cincinnati; Technology and Arts Academy of Cleveland; Vision into Action Academy-South Columbus; and WinWin Academy.  It is difficult to tell from the names of most of these schools even where it was intended that they would be located.

Ninety-seven CSP-funded schools in Ohio have shut down, but from the list, it is not possible to discern whether they were shut down by their sponsors for conflicts of interest or fraud, or whether their sponsors determined they were failing their students academically, or whether they just went broke. Most of the CSP grants awarded to closed or never-opened schools were in the six figure range—$150,000 or more.  Two of the schools that failed or were never opened had been awarded CSP grants over $700,000; three had been granted between $600,000 and $700,000; two had received between $500,000 and $600,000; and 25 had been awarded between $400,000 and $500,000.

The federal Charter Schools Program is neoliberal by design.  It awards public funding to private operators—individuals and companies—to run schools in competition with the traditional public schools. One primary problem with the CSP along with other schemes to privatize the public schools is that oversight is lacking to protect the rights of the students and to protect the stewardship of tax dollars.

The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber explains that lack of oversight, absence of transparency, waste and fraud are predictable when public programs and services are privatized: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive…  Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

The new Ohio report released last Friday by the Network for Public Education documents that between 2006 and 2014, Ohio charter schools were awarded $35,926,693 from the federal Charter Schools Program, money that disappeared when the intended recipient schools never opened or eventually shut down. The entire scheme has lacked oversight at both federal and state levels and entirely lacked transparency.  Most of us in Ohio were aware neither of the operation of this federal program nor its propensity to fund experiments that failed to serve Ohio’s children.

In last Friday’s letter to Betsy DeVos, Burris and Ravitch also share reports on schools that never opened or were soon shut down in Michigan, Louisiana, California, and Florida. They explain: “In the coming weeks, we will continue the process of identifying all of the closed and ‘ghost’ schools in every state, posting the names of those schools and issuing state reports.”

Melinda Gates and the Blindness of Privilege

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published an interview—David Marchese talking with Melinda Gates—about the enormous power of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for shaping our lives.  Marchese asks Ms. Gates directly about the Gates Foundation’s role in driving today’s neoliberal public education policy. Doesn’t a giant foundation—“Its endowment at $50.7 billion… the largest in the world.”—have an outsized impact on social policy? “What about the notion that the foundation’s work on an issue like public education is inherently antidemocratic?  You’ve spent money in that area in a way that maybe seems like it’s crowding out people’s actual wants in that area. What’s your counter to that criticism?”

Ms. Gates cheerfully counters his critique: “Bill and I always go back to ‘What is philanthropy’s role?’ It is to be catalytic. It’s to try and put new ideas forward and test them and see if they work. If you can convince government to scale up, that is how you have success.  But philanthropic dollars are a tiny slice of the United States education budget. Even if we put a billion dollars in the State of California, that’s not going to do that much. So we experiment with things.”

Despite Melinda Gates’ protestations, as we look back, we can see that when the Gates Foundation has experimented with with reforming institutions like public schools, there have been no real consequences for Bill and Melinda and their staff at the Foundation when projects have failed. In the history of the Foundation’s projects with America’s public schools, however, there are many examples of negative consequences for the schools, our communities, and our children.  Here are two.

The first is local—situated in metropolitan Tampa, Florida.  In 2009, The Gates Foundation made a $100 million grant to the Hillsborough County School District in Florida.  The money was to pay for  a huge experiment in merit pay for teachers. Then in 2015, the Gates Foundation deemed the experiment a failure and walked away, leaving the school district to cover millions of dollars of sunk costs and the responsibility for undoing the damage. According to an extremely thorough and arresting report by Marlene Sokol for the Tampa Bay Times, the Gates Foundation’s plan in Hillsborough County transformed a cadre of 265 of the district’s best teachers into full-time peer-evaluators paid to “observe teachers… (and) score teachers on everything from subject knowledge to how well they get their students to behave. Their findings, after multiple visits, are combined with results of principals’ evaluations. A third component, based on student data, is dependent on state test results and comes later in the year. The total scores now factor into teacher pay.” Sokol lists some of the failures of this experiment: “The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in…. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.”  “The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teacher into high-needs schools. More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants… After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model.  And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses…. Hillsborough’s graduation rates still lag behind other large school districts. Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced….” And the school district itself spent more than $100 million on a program it cannot afford to maintain.

The second example of a Gates experiment gone wrong continues to affect all of us across the United States.  It is embedded in the policies Arne Duncan forced states to enact into law in order to qualify to apply for a Race to the Top grant. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was involved in every level of the development of test-and-punish school accountability. In a stunning expose for Dissent Magazine back in 2011, Joanne Barkan traces the evolution and outsized impact of a Gates Foundation project which upended public policy at the local level in Chicago and subsequently created the framework for Arne Duncan’s policies at the U.S. Department of Education. The new project replaced an earlier Gates experiment to break large high schools into small schools.  The Gates Foundation had given up on the small schools initiative, but, as Barkan writes: “No matter. The power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, standards and tests, and school ‘turnaround’ (the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere). To support the new initiatives, the Gates Foundation had already invested almost $2.2 million to create The Turnaround Challenge, the authoritative how-to guide on turnaround. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it ‘the bible’ for school restructuring.  He’s incorporated it into federal policy, and reformers around the country use it. Mass Insight Education, the consulting company that produced it, claims the document has been downloaded 200,000 times since 2007.  Meanwhile, Gates also invested $90 million in one of the largest implementations of the turnaround strategy—Chicago’s Renaissance 2010.  Ren2010 gave Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan a national name and a ticket to Washington; he took along the reform strategy.”

In her groundbreaking 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explores the role of the Gates Foundation and today’s other venture philanthropies in the development of corporate school reform: “Foundations exist to enable extremely wealthy people to shelter a portion of their capital from taxation, and then to use the money for socially beneficial purposes… Foundations themselves may not engage in political advocacy, but they may legally fund organizations that do.  They may also support research projects likely to advance the foundation’s goals. Education has often been high on their agendas… There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are, after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 197-201)

Philanthropic dollars these days shape public policy in myriad ways, and the consequences are rarely neutral. A profound new book by Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, is the best refutation I know of Melinda Gates’ rather theoretical defense in last Sunday’s NY Times of philanthropic experimentation with education policy.

Ewing describes in wrenching detail the experience for parents, children, grandparents and teachers of what happened several years after the Gates Foundation underwrote Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 experiment.  In May of 2013, after the vast expansion of charter schools, Rahm Emanuel’s administration shut down 50 traditional Chicago public schools—schools said to have failed their turnarounds and become underutilized. Over 80 percent of the students in the schools eventually shut down were African American. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research independently confirms Ewing’s finding of overwhelming community grieving across the areas where so many of the schools were closed.

The philanthropic model—experiments with turnarounds and merit pay—experiments with opening and closing schools and shuffling children from one school to another—misses the role of institutions like public schools in the lives of families, neighborhoods, and entire communities.  Ewing urges policy makers to ask a very different set of questions:  “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 158-159)

Congress Should Defund the Charter Schools Program and Invest the Money in Title I and IDEA

The Network for Public Education published its scathing report on the federal Charter Schools Program three weeks ago, but as time passes, I continue to reflect on its conclusions. The report, Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride, is packed with details about failed or closed or never-opened charter schools.  The Network for Public Education depicts a program driven by neoliberal politicians hoping to spark innovation in a marketplace of unregulated startups underwritten by the federal government. The record of this 25 year federal program is dismal.

Here is what the Network for Public Education’s report shows us. The federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) 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. Begun when Bill Clinton was President, this neoliberal—publicly funded, privatized—program has been supported by Democratic and Republican administrations alike.  It has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been awarded to schools that never opened or that were shut down: “We found that it is likely that as many as one third of all charter schools receiving CSP grants never opened, or opened and shut down.”  Many grants went to schools that illegally discriminated in some way to choose their students and served far fewer disabled students and English language learners than the local pubic schools.  Many of the CSP-funded charter schools were plagued by conflicts of interest profiteering, and mismanagement. The Department of Education has never investigated the scathing critiques of the program by the Department’s Office of Inspector Genera; neither has the Department of Education investigated the oversight practices of the state-by-state departments of education, called State Education Agencies by CSP, to which many of the grants were made. Oversight has declined under the Department’s leadership by Betsy DeVos.

One of the shocking findings in the Asleep at the Wheel report is that a series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated this program 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 public operation of the public schools. This use of the Charter Schools Program as a source for venture capital is especially shocking in the past decade under Presidents Obama and Trump, even as federal funding for essential public school programs has fallen. The Center on Budget and Policy priorities reports, for example, that public Title I formula funding dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.

The authors of the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report explain that the Department of Education itself justifies the high failure rate of schools receiving Charter Schools Program grants because the program’s purpose is to provide start-up money for entrepreneurs to experiment with innovative ideas for schools:  “CSP’s explanation for the high cost of failure was, ‘As with any start-up, school operators face a range of factors that may affect their school’s opening.  And as with any provider of start-up capital, the department learns from its investments.'”

Late in March, when the current Secretary of Education was questioned by members of the House Appropriations Committee about the findings in the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler quotes Betsy DeVos herself justifying the high rate of charter school failure with an argument that basically the Charter Schools Program provides venture capital to support entrepreneurship and innovation: “When you have experimentation, you’re always going to have schools that don’t make it, and that’s what should happen.”

The Department of Education took a big leap toward support for social entrepreneurship (and diminished attention to the Department’s traditional programming) under the leadership of Arne Duncan, who served as Secretary of Education between 2009 and  December of 2015.  To lead the Department’s Office for Innovation and Improvement, Duncan hired Jim Shelton.  Before joining the department, Shelton had, according to a Department of Education biography, earned two master’s degrees from Stanford in business administration and education.  He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc.  In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch his school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened more and more charter schools.  He became a partner in the NewSchools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program director for its education division.

To be hired at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton had to be waivered from a federal law that bans people from moving into governmental positions in which they will work directly with their former employer.  In Shelton’s case, the danger was not that he would shower his former employer with federal government largesse, but instead that he would import the priorities and practices of his former employer—the Gates Foundation—directly into government. Shelton oversaw not only the Charter Schools Program but also Race to the Top, which made large federal stimulus grants to states, which had each been given (by the Gates Foundation) a quarter of a million dollars apiece to hire grant writers to develop creative ways to invest federal stimulus money to support the turnaround of so-called failing schools. To qualify, the states had to agree to Duncan’s prescribed turnaround plans and also promise to remove caps on the authorization of new charter schools. There is now widespread agreement that Race to the Top failed to fulfill its stated goal of improving school achievement. After leaving the department, Duncan and Shelton both continued their careers in grant-funded social entrepreneurship; at least their work has no longer been publicly funded. Shelton ran education programming for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, and Duncan has been working for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos now leads the U.S. Department of Education, and her leadership has further reduced oversight, according to the Asleep at the Wheel report: “Under the current administration, while Congressional funding for the CSP rises, the quality of the applications and awardees has further declined.”

The Charter Schools Program is the only one of DeVos’s school privatization initiatives whose budget Congress has increased.  The Network for Public Education traces its funding history: “The program was appropriated at $219 million in 2004.  The budget went up to $256 million in 2010, $333 million in 2016, then to $342 million in 2017, $400 million in 2018 and is now at $440 million for FY 2019.”  In his proposed FY 2020 budget, President Trump has asked Congress to add another $60 million.

When Organizations like the NewSchools Venture Fund or today’s mega-foundations experiment with educational innovation, the risk is underwritten by private capital or philanthropic grants from the Walton, Gates, or Broad Foundations, for example. And if the experiments fail, the money lost is private.  In the case of the federal Charter Schools Program, the Department of Education has been gambling with $4 billion of our tax dollars—money desperately needed by the public schools in our nation’s poorest communities—money that could have been invested, for example, in Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children or in implementation of programs to meet the mandates of the IDEA.  At their inception, Congress promised to fund a significant part of the cost of both Title I and IDEA, but Congressional appropriations have chronically fallen short.  Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) has currently introduced the “Keep Our PACT Act,” which if passed would significantly increase the federal commitment to supporting federal these priorities. Van Hollen explains: “Title I, which gives assistance to America’s highest-need schools, is a critical tool to ensure that every child, no matter the zip code, has access to a quality education. However, it has been deeply underfunded, shortchanging our most vulnerable students living in poverty… (T)he Title I formula was underfunded by $347 billion from 2005-2017… Similarly, IDEA calls on the federal government to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education, but Congress has never fully funded the law. Currently, IDEA state grants are funded at just 14.7 percent.”

The Asleep at the Wheel report’s authors conclude: “The CSP’s grant approval process appears to be based on the application alone, with no attempt to verify the information presented.  Hundreds of schools have been approved for grants despite serious concerns noted by reviewers… The… lack of rigor and investigation in the review process, and the seeming willingness of the CSP program to offer grants despite concerns expressed by reviewers raise questions about whether this program is truly committed to jump-starting schools that hold the greatest promise of success, or whether simply letting 1,000 flowers bloom, and accepting the chaos and waste of repeated failure is really the operational model.”

For 25 years, the U.S. Department of Education has enabled, and Congress has funded, a failed, neoliberal, market-based, and unregulated charter school experiment.  In an article he published last spring, the McMaster University education theorist, Henry Giroux said it best: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public….”

This blog has previously explored the Asleep at the Wheel report here and here.

DeVos’s Staff Blocked Researchers Trying to Investigate Federal Charter Schools Program

Writing this week for The Washingtonian, Rachel M. Cohen describes the responses of eighteen federal workers when she interviewed them about what it’s really like to work for the Trump administration.

Cohen quotes an anonymous staff person in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education, someone who reflects on Departmental priorities these days and her own particular concern: “I definitely get the sense that the appointees don’t feel many functions of our agency are necessary anymore. Words like ‘regulatory overreach’ and ‘burdensome regulations’ come up a lot, and while it’s true sometimes oversight is burdensome, and ensuring efficacy and quality can feel like overreach, we give out a lot of money—and if we don’t maintain some standard for those funds, then we’re not doing our job.”

Apparently the politically appointed leadership at the U.S. Department of Education wasn’t happy when, on March 8, 2019, the Network for Public Education (NPE) tried to investigate federal oversight over one area of departmental funding by submitting a Freedom of Information Act request for documentation of routine regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. Jeff Bryant is one of the researchers and writers of NPE’s new report, Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride.  In an article published this week at AlterNet, Bryant shares some simple research questions he submitted to the Department of Education and the outrageous response he received: “On March 15, I received a voicemail from an official in the public affairs division of the department asking me to call her back. The message started out nice enough but then veered toward criticism. ‘Apparently you have sent this request to multiple people,’ she said (emphasis original), ‘and that just creates havoc for everyone.’ When I immediately called her back, I explained I had merely sent my inquiry to the contacts provided on the relevant sections of the department’s website. ‘That’s understandable,’ she replied, but for ‘future reference’ I was told to send inquiries to ‘a director’—though I’m not sure who that is.  And I was told again my questions had ‘created havoc’ in the office but that department staff members were ‘working on it’ and would ‘take a few days.’ As of this writing, I’ve yet to receive any other replies.”  Perhaps Bryant sent his inquiry to the career staff listed on the Department’s website, but a politically appointed staff member exerted her power over the Department’s communications with the public.

Bryant supplies us with the innocuous enough request he sent on March 8, a set of routine questions that surely ought to have resulted in a clear answer from a functioning governmental department: “This is to inquire about the current grant application review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities. Specifically, in 2015, the Department published an ‘Overview of the 2015 CSP SEA Review Process.’ My questions: (1) Can you provide a similar document describing how the grant review process is currently being conducted for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities? (2) If not, can you briefly comment on how the grant review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities aligns with or varies from the Overview referenced above? (3) Regarding a ‘Dear Colleague‘ letter sent to State Education Agencies in 2015 emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars, was there any follow-up by the Charter Schools Program to ascertain how many SEAs complied with this request and what was the nature of the new systems and processes put into place by SEAs to provide for greater accountability?”

It is interesting to go back and read that 2015 “Dear Colleague” letter.  In the letter, two assistant general secretaries and an advisor to the program remind State Education Agencies (SEAs) of their role in helping the U.S. Department of Education to monitor the quality and fiscal responsibility of charter schools that had received federal money under the Charter Schools Program: “We write today to remind SEAs of your role in helping to ensure that Federal funds accessed by public charter schools are used for intended, appropriate purposes.  We also remind SEAs that the Department serves as an important resource to help with this important task… Although many charter schools are managed effectively and demonstrate promising results, the Department’s Office of Inspector General’s (OIG’s) recent semiannual reports to Congress have identified examples of conflicts of interest between charter schools and their management organizations, and examples of charter schools with problematic fiscal and management practices… SEAs should take steps to monitor and help correct poor management practices in charter schools.” Here are links to 2012, 2016, and 2018 U.S. Department of Education OIG condemnations of the management of the federal Charter Schools Program.

A little more history is also helpful.  The 2015, “Dear Colleague” letter was released during a period when the U.S. Department of Education was involved in reviewing the award the Department of Education had recently made of $71 million to Ohio (the department’s largest Charter Schools Program SEA grant in 2015) after it had been pointed out by critics in Ohio that David Hansen, then the director of funding and oversight of charter schools at the Ohio Department of Education, had lied when he wrote the grant application by omitting the low ratings of an entire sector of so-called “dropout recovery” charter schools in Ohio and implying that Ohio had already tightened its charter school regulations when in fact the Legislature was only in the process of considering proposed legislation for slightly improved charter oversight.  In November of that year, the U.S. Department of Education was shamed into delaying the $71 million award to Ohio, pending further review.  (In September of 2016, the Department of Education finally released the $71 million grant, but labeled Ohio “at risk” following a request from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown for increased oversight of the $71 million grant to Ohio.)

Oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program matters for the communities and public school districts where the grants are awarded and for the children and families who will be affected by charter school expansion. And the amount of money in the federal awards to state education agencies and large charter school chains is significant. In its Asleep at the Wheel report, NPE reports that the federal Charter Schools Program, “was established in 1994 and over its 25-year existence, has funded as many as 40 percent of charter schools across the country… We estimate that approximately $4 billion federal tax dollars have been spent or allocated to start, replicate and expand charter schools.” “Hundreds of millions… have been awarded to charter schools that never opened or opened and then shut down.”

In his recent article, Jeff Bryant reminds us that poor management of the federal Charter Schools Program did not begin with Betsy DeVos: “It was under Arne Duncan’s watch that the federal charter grants program was greatly expanded, (and) states were required to lift caps on the number of charter schools in order to receive precious federal (Race to the Top) dollars… And most of the wanton charter fraud we detailed in our report that ran rampant during the Duncan years is now simply continuing under DeVos, with little to no explanation of why this is allowed to occur.” “This is not a partisan issue… Of course, any comparison between DeVos and Duncan can find some very big differences, but a constant throughout both administrations has been to ignore, wall-off, or obfuscate when confronted with any inquiry aimed at the federal government’s efforts to create and expand charter schools.” “It’s actually been endemic in the education policy world for years, particularly in how the federal government continues to hide its agenda to further privatize the nation’s public school system by creating and expanding charter schools.”

Meryl Johnson, who represents District 11 on the Ohio State Board of Education, will interview Diane Ravitch on Johnson’s weekly radio show, It’s About Justice (WRUW 91.1 FM) next Saturday, April 13, 2019 at from 1:00 PM until 2:00 PM.  The program will be live-streamed at  https://wruw.org/.

Charter School Sector Swindles the Public, Burns Tax Dollars, and Cheats Children—Part 2

Yesterday’s post launched a two day summary of abuses by charter school operators and charter management organizations due to the absence of regulation of a 44-state privatized education sector.  Recent reporting, including an investigation by the Network for Public Education of the federal Charter Schools Program and newspapers across several states, have exposed a sector awash in financial scandal, fraud and conflicts of interest.  The stories confirm what striking schoolteachers have been showing us all year: Charter schools suck money from the public schools—most often in the poorest city school districts where the needs of the students are greatest.

It was promised that charter schools—less regulated institutions than their traditional public school counterparts—would foster innovation.  What we have learned from this 25 year experiment is that charter school operators have proven themselves extremely innovative in the way they have made piles of money at public expense.

Yesterday’s post featured the findings of five-part investigation by USA Today and the North Jersey Record of unscrupulous charter school deals in Chris Christie’s New Jersey.  Today’s post will briefly track recent stories of charter school abuses in three other states.

California: Anna Phillips’ three part, Los Angeles Times investigation (here, here, and here) of California’s charter school laws summarizes years of problems in a state where an unregulated charter sector was launched in 1992. Phillips outlines the history of California charter schools: “Twenty-seven years ago, when California became just the second state to enact a law establishing charter schools, state leaders framed the experiment as a modest one that would allow only 100 schools at first. Free-market advocates saw charters as a way to empower all students to choose from a variety of schools. Other supporters envisioned them as laboratories for testing new teaching methods and then bringing successes back to traditional public schools. The new, privately operated schools would be government-funded and tuition-free. They would unleash creativity by liberating schools from many of the state education code’s rules. But to ensure that they lived up to their promises and spent public money properly, they would have to be vetted and overseen by governmental bodies, beginning with the school districts in which they were located. That was sufficient check and balance for the civic-minded individuals who ran many charter schools. But as the number of charters in the state grew, the same law that allowed many founders to try new ideas with great success created opportunities for others. The law allowed for a multitude of different bodies to serve as ‘authorizers,’ watching over the new schools.  It gave oversight power not just to the state board, but also to each of the state’s many school districts and county boards of education—regardless of whether they had the ability or inclination to properly police the independently run schools. About 330 government entities have the authority to authorize and supervise charters in California. By contrast, Texas, the state with the second-largest number of charter schools has 18… New York has two active authorizers.”

Governor Jerry Brown, who himself founded two charter schools in Oakland, regularly vetoed charter oversight bills. What about the recently elected Governor Gavin Newsom?  Phillips addresses this question:  “Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation earlier this month requiring more transparency and stricter conflict-of-interest rules for charter schools. Those reforms could lead to changes when they take effect next year. But they are unlikely to fix the structural issues that have allowed problem charter school operators to circumvent oversight.”

In her series Phillips explores two of the most serious problems.  First are the  unscrupulous operators who run multiple for-profit companies that make money by managing their nonprofit schools by leasing at outrageous rental fees the buildings they own to the charters they are managing or selling their schools food prep or janitorial services. Even when multiple abuses have been exposed, politics can ensure a crooked school’s charter will be renewed.

The second problem seems absurd to anyone outside California. A tiny, broke, public school district can, under California law, open charter schools, and even locate them in other school districts, in order to collect state authorizer fees to pad the tiny school district’s budget.  Phillips explains: “School districts looking to make money from charters often begin by approving only charters that are unlikely to compete with their own district-run schools. Some take advantage of provisions in the law that allow certain charters to locate outside the boundaries of their authorizing districts… (D)istricts that authorize charter schools can charge oversight fees of up to 3% of a charter’s revenue. In practice, however, districts can add thousands of dollars in fees for an array of extra services, such as help with human resources… For the first century of its existence, the New Jerusalem Elementary School District consisted of a single schoolhouse surrounded by farmland. Located in Tracy, about 25 miles south of Stockton, the district had never had more than 240 students in Kindergarten through eighth grade…. When the charter law passed, they saw an opportunity… Over the next two decades, New Jerusalem opened a series of what are called dependent charters—schools that are free from many state regulations but still controlled by their local school districts. The charters siphoned students away from neighboring school districts, along with the state revenue that came with them… By 2016, New Jerusalem was overseeing six independent charter schools in addition to its seven district-run charters and its lone traditional school.  Over five years, its enrollment had soared from 686 students to 5,015, and millions of dollars had poured in.”

Florida: In a scathing March 15, editorial, the South Florida Sun Sentinal condemns widespread profiteering by unscrupulous operators of the state’s charter schools: “Florida has become Exhibit A of… profiteering and interest group politics. Under the uncritical eyes of an indulgent Legislature, for-profit education companies now manage nearly half of the state’s 650 publicly financed charter schools and enroll more than 130,000 students, but with woefully insufficient controls on what they spend and to whom they pay it. Like the private prison industry and other banqueters at the public trough, they’re investing heavily in lobbying—$5.3 million in just over 10 years—and in political expenditures.”  Florida’s charter schools, “enroll smaller percentages of low-income students and students with disabilities, leaving the public schools responsible for the rest, even as charters and private schools (through vouchers) siphon off more tax money.” And as in New Jersey, much of the profiteering happens when charter schools are forced to pay exorbitant rent for facilities owned by the very management companies that in turn operate the charter schools. The editorial board examines the recommendations of Integrity Florida, which exposed many of the abuses in Florida’s charter sector: “Integrity Florida’s multiple recommendations for charter school reform include setting limits on payments to for-profit management companies and requiring those companies to report their expenditures and profits.”  Bills to increase oversight have been introduced in the Legislature, “But it’s highly unlikely that any of these bills will pass. Integrity Florida’s extensively documented report has attracted no sign of interest from any of the Legislature’s committees on education or appropriations. Charter schools are protected in Tallahassee by a minefield of conflicts of interest.”

Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania’s problem is different. Even with all sorts of evidence that a charter school is misusing tax dollars or evidence the school is failing to educate its students, it is almost impossible to get it shut down. Following an investigation by Inquirer reporter Maddie Hanna, columnist Lisa Haver wonders: “How many lawyers does it take to shut down a failing charter school?”  Here is how Haver describes the problem: “The Pennsylvania Charter Law mandates a lengthy legal process, beginning with weeks of hearings at the District level. Thousands of pages of documents are entered into evidence.  Should the hearing examiner rule in the District’s favor, the charter school can appeal to the state’s Charter Appeal Board in the hope that the 6-person board of political appointees, most of whom have ties to the charter sector, will overrule the decision of the local board. Should that fail, the school can appeal to the Commonwealth Court.”

Haver cites an example. “A recent story by Inquirer education reporter Maddie Hanna detailed the costs involved in current efforts to shut down two city charters. The District handed over management of Olney High and Stetson Middle schools to Aspira, Inc., in 2010 and 2011 respectively, as part of its ‘Renaissance’ program, with the expectation that Aspira would effect ‘dramatic’ change at both schools. Not only did Aspira, which operates three other charter schools in the city, fail to turn around either school, test scores actually went into a steady decline every year. But it was Aspira’s questionable financial practices and overall mismanagement that led to the District’s 2016 recommendation that the School Reform Commission vote not to renew both charters… (T)he SRC voted for non-renewal in December 2017.”  Philadelphia subsequently replaced the School Reform Commission with a democratically elected school board. “The new Board did not schedule revocation hearings until almost eighteen months later.  If Aspira wanted to improve itself academically and financially, its defacto extension gave the company plenty of time to do so, but recent evaluations show continued decline.”

The story is even more complicated because in Pennsylvania, when a student leaves a public school district for a charter, the charter school takes whatever is that district’s expenditure per pupil—the full amount. Haver explains the implications of Pennsylvania’s charter-school funding methodology when it comes to a protracted legal hearing: “The Inquirer story explains that ‘because charter schools are funded largely by school districts, taxpayers are paying not just for the district to make its case, but for the charter to defend itself.’ The District also pays for the hearing examiner, the stenographer, and for the assembling and copying of thousands of documents. Aspira Olney’s lawyers are making between $180 and $300 an hour, but lawyers for Aspira Inc. wouldn’t disclose their hourly fees—and they are under no obligation to, even though they are paid, indirectly, with taxpayer funds. The District could be shelling out $10,000 a day in legal and administrative fees. That doesn’t include billing for preparation and other costs. That’s $140,000 for the already scheduled fourteen days; total cost will easily exceed $200,000. How many teachers or librarians could that buy?… The hearings are moving at a glacial pace… The state’s charter law, characterized as ‘the worst in the nation’ by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, was written to benefit charter operators and investors—and obviously their lawyers.”

Can an out-of-control charter school be effectively regulated? I doubt it. Now, after the charter school sector has matured for 25 years, the mess we’re in is becoming clearer and clearer.  A moratorium on new charters must be a priority in the federal Charter Schools Program and ought to be demanded by activists in state after state. Charters do not, on the whole, operate in the public interest.

Meryl Johnson, who represents District 11 on the Ohio State Board of Education, will interview Diane Ravitch on Johnson’s weekly radio show, It’s About Justice (WRUW 91.1 FM) next Saturday, April 13, 2019 at from 1:00 PM until 2:00 PM.  The program will be live-streamed at  https://wruw.org/.