U.S. Department of Education Awards First Round of 2020 Grants in Federal Charter Schools Program

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.

Myths and Hype Fueled Charter School Expansion: Here Are 8 Essential Facts

If you value the role of public schools—locally governed, publicly owned and operated—whose mission is to serve the needs and protect the rights of every child, you can be more supportive if you know the facts about charter schools. The public schools across the United States enroll 50 million students, 90 percent.  Charter schools suck money out of state budgets and public school districts while they enroll only 6 percent of American students. We all need to be actively refuting the myths and calling politicians on their errors when they betray their ignorance about the problems posed by the privatization of public education.

Here are eight facts to keep in mind:

  1. While their promoters try to brand them as “public charter schools,” charter schools are a form of school privatization. Charter schools are private contractors whose expenses are paid with tax dollars. Their boards operate privately—very often without transparency.
  2. For-profit charter schools are permitted in only two states—Arizona and Wisconsin. In the 43 other states whose laws permit charter schools, the schools must be nonprofits.
  3. Nonprofit charter schools are increasingly operated—and often highly controlled—by for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs).  Sometimes, in something called a sweeps contract, a nonprofit turns over 90 percent or more of its operating dollars to the for-profit management company it has hired to run the school—meaning that the for-profit essentially runs the school.  But that school is technically a nonprofit. Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit CMOs.
  4. Charter schools are established in state law in 45 states and the District of Columbia. (West Virginia, the 45th state, just passed charter school enabling legislation in June, 2019.)  There are no federal laws that set up or regulate charter schools.
  5. Across the states, charter school fraud and corruption has run rampant due to weak regulation by state legislatures.
  6. Charter schools and their supporters and lobbyists have used their power to promote charter schools across the state legislatures. Groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), ExcelinEd (Jeb Bush’s group), and the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s group) have lobbied for charter school expansion, and deregulation. Many state legislatures have passed “model” bills which were written and distributed by ALEC’s Education Committee to members of state legislatures who are also members of ALEC.
  7. No state has passed additional taxes to fund charter schools.  When states create charter schools, children who leave public schools to enroll in charters carry away state dollars and essential funding from the public school districts where the children were previously enrolled (see here and here). Public school districts are unable to compensate fully for the loss the public dollars that used to pay for public school services but have now been redirected to a privatized sector.
  8. Since it was begun in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program has served as a sort of venture capital fund with grants to states to fuel the startup and expansion of the charter school sector. More than $1 billion has been wasted on charter schools which never opened or eventually shut down.  Proponents of the program, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have claimed this waste of tax dollars is acceptable because the money fueled educational innovation and entrepreneurship—even if there was a high rate of failure.

Several of the Democratic candidates for President of the United States have been playing to public school supporters by opposing for-profit charter schools. For the American Prospect, Rachel M. Cohen reports that by opposing for-profit charters, several of the candidates seem to be distancing themselves from charter schools; she adds that two or three have even supported the idea, endorsed by the NAACP, of a moratorium on new charter schools until their impact has been carefully assessed. Cohen adds that candidates seem to be noticing public opinion polls that report “dwindling support among white Democratic voters” for charter schools.

Candidates ought to be calculating their positions based on the facts, however, not on shifts in political opinion.  If you know the 8 essential facts about charter schools described in this post, you will wonder:

  • How can so many of the candidates be so ignorant about the relative absence of for-profit charter schools?
  • Do these politicians not know that the for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), not the charter schools themselves, are sucking profits from the tax dollars allocated for the nonprofit charter schools they manage?
  • How can so many candidates seem unaware of the importance of our nation’s world class system of public education and poorly informed about the ways the public schools are threatened by the expansion of charters?
  • Are candidates trying to have it both ways—by being for and against charter schools at the same time?
  • Why do so many of the candidates not care enough to become informed about the needs of public schools and the challenges school privatization poses for public school districts?

Maybe the level of misunderstanding or the amount of disinterest is because school privatization, like school funding, is primarily a state-by-state issue.  But there is at least one area in which the matter of charter schools ought to be of urgent interest to every member of Congress and every Democratic candidate for President: the demonstrated catastrophe of the federal Charter Schools Program.  (See fact #8.)

The following question ought to be asked at every candidates’ debate or forum or town hall or coffee with a Democratic candidate for President:

The federal government—through the federal Charter Schools Program—has been subsidizing the startup and expansion of charter schools with grants to states. But the Network for Public Education and even the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General have criticized this program due to the utter absence of oversight. More than $1 billion has been invested through this program in schools that never opened or that ultimately shut down. Will you pledge to terminate the federal Charter Schools Program program?