No Oversight: U.S. Dept. of Ed. Has Invested $3.3 Billion in Charters Without Regulation

Back in 2010, I personally heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declare, “Good charters are part of the solution; bad charters are part of the problem.” But despite his acknowledgment of many charter schools of poor quality, Arne Duncan and his U.S. Department of Education have done nothing to address what he called “part of the problem.”  Although to qualify to apply for Race to the Top grants, states had to agree to eliminate statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools, the department did not require states to provide adequate oversight of the new schools.  The Department of Education under Arne Duncan has incentivized and funded a vast increase in the quantity of charter schools, but it has done nothing to improve the quality.

In a blockbuster report released on Friday, Jonas Persson of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) documents an enormous scandal: “CMD’s review of appropriations reveals that the federal government has spent a staggering sum, $3.3 billion, of taxpayer money creating and expanding the charter school industry over the past two decades, but it has done so without requiring the most basic transparency in who ultimately receives the funds and what those tax dollars are being used for, especially in contrast to the public information about truly public schools. Although some charters have a veneer of being alternative ‘public schools,’ many of them are run by for-profit companies or outsource key operations to for-profit firms, and are exempt from any local democratic control.  These billions have been funneled to charters through a patchwork of state laws often designed to prevent government agencies from exercising control over how that money is spent by charters or to exempt charters from rules that apply to traditional public schools, including enforceable sunshine rules on spending tax money… Federal charter school funding has expanded 6-fold since its inception in 1995, and—despite statements by ED (the U.S. Department of Education) and others of regret regarding enormous amounts squandered by incompetent or greedy charter school operators—very little has been done by the government to require strong financial controls to protect the educational opportunities of kids attending charters and to protect our tax dollars from rip-offs and waste.” (emphasis in the original)

The Center for Media and Democracy is blunt in its criticism of U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, who is reported to have testified about charter schools just last month to a Congressional appropriations committee: “The waste of taxpayer money—none of us can feel good about.”  “Yet,” writes Persson, “he (Duncan) is calling for a 48% increase in the U.S. Department of Education’s quarter-billion-dollar-a-year ($253.2 million) program designed to create, expand, and replicate charter schools—an initiative repeatedly criticized by the Office of the Inspector General for suspected waste and inadequate financial controls.”

Persson reports that $3,352,841,281 can be traced in federal expenditures to expand and develop charter schools, but at the same time a solid research base is lacking for these schools that are publicly funded and privately operated: “This sweeping expansion, under the banner of bipartisanship, is surprising given the fact that academic studies—independent of charter school advocates and its industry—have consistently found mixed results in terms of charter schools and learning outcomes.  And even the most glowing reports funded by school privatization interests have had to admit that the worst charter schools perform much worse than any traditional public school… Despite these findings and numerous examples of abject failure of particular charter schools, many policymakers have bought into the PR that charters are a panacea for ‘reforming’ traditional public schools.”

Persson blames pro-charter philanthropies and advocates who have invested heavily to promote the expansion of charters without accountability: “Many of the gaps through which millions have passed unaccountably have been intentional, resulting from ideological opposition to state oversight over charters that operate like private, not public, schools.”  Oversight of charters has been left to state governments, but state laws often defer to charter school authorizers, who lack the capacity or the will to oversee the schools they sponsor.  Persson quotes Congressional testimony from Kathleen S. Tighe of the U.S. Office of Inspector General: “OIG has conducted a significant amount of investigative work involving charter schools.  These investigations have found that authorizers often fail to provide adequate oversight to ensure that charter schools properly use and account for Federal funds.”

The new report concludes: “For decades a small group of millionaires and billionaires, like the Koch Brothers, have backed a legislative agenda to privatize public education in America.  Lobbying groups funded by them, like the corporate bill mill ALEC (the “American Legislative Exchange Council”), have been pushing states to create and expand charter schools outside of the authority of the state public school agencies and local school boards, confining the state to limited oversight of whether authorizers have adequate policies, not over how charters spend tax dollars.”  “The fact that authorizers enjoy almost complete autonomy—not only from state regulations but also from public control through elected school boards—is a feature of the anti-regulatory environment in which charters have grown, rather than a bug.”

The Bottom Line: no one actually tracks the list of charter schools that received federal tax dollars to open, expand and/or replicate charter schools, how much they received, or how they spent the people’s monies.  Each link in the chain can point to someone else who may have parts of that data but who likely has no obligation to publish that information for the public to understand, although what can be gleaned varies by state.  That is, there is no systematic public accounting for how the federal budget allocated to charters is actually being spent, and not even a reliable per-pupil/per capita figure.” (emphasis in the original)

Please read this short, pithy report.

Universal Access and Public Ownership: Charter Schools Don’t Meet These Criteria

This past weekend a friend, realizing some of my concerns about charter schools, said, “Look.  You should go visit my friend’s charter school. He is doing a terrific job. You shouldn’t write off charter schools.”

Let me take this opportunity to go on record: I realize there are a whole range of charter schools including some that do a fine job of providing opportunities for their students.  There are quality charter schools.

But I also know that public school policy must be systemic.  Society can never balance the needs of each individual child and the rights of all children one charter school at a time.  Nor can we possibly achieve justice by creating a set of “escapes from the public schools,” charter school by charter school.  There is a problem of scale for one thing.  Public schools in America educate 50 million children.  The more promising alternative is to set about improving the public schools that struggle.  Struggling public schools are usually located in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, and they are almost always underfunded by their state legislatures.

Let me outline more specifically my concerns about relying on charters for school reform. My first concern is about access.  Charter schools serve about 6 percent of our students.  Quality charter schools that provide excellent education are doing so for a tiny percentage of the children who need opportunity. The great advantage of public education is that it is systemic.  No matter where you live—whatever state, city, suburb, small town, or rural area—you are promised a public school for your child.  Yes public schools have reflected the racism and economic inequality of the society in which they are set.  But as public institutions, they have been amenable to improvement by those seeking to make our society more just.

Charter schools are not so amenable to reform… which raises my second concern: public ownership, the right of the public to regulate the institutions that depend upon tax dollars. The public has the capacity to improve institutions that are publicly owned, publicly managed, and publicly regulated.  But charter schools, while they often call themselves “public charter schools,” are public only to the degree that they receive public dollars to operate.  In legal cases when charter schools have been sued, their attorneys have successfully argued that because they are private institutions, they are not publicly accountable.

As institutions funded primarily with tax dollars, charter schools ought to be accountable for protecting the children being educated at public expense, and they should be accountable for careful stewardship of the public dollars being spent.  Yet in too many places public oversight is missing.  While the federal government has been providing huge incentives for states to expand the number of charter schools through programs like Race to the Top, the federal government has no capacity to regulate charter schools.  Regulations must come from the fifty state legislatures, which are affected by politics and the gifts of political supporters.  My state, Ohio, is notorious for poor oversight of charter schools.  Here is the text of an e-mail blast this morning from William Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding:

“Charter schools sponsor, St. Aloysius Orphanage of Cincinnati, approved eight new charter schools for this school year. St. Aloysius contracted with Charter School Specialists of Pickerington to manage whatever responsibility the official sponsor has under law. These eight charter schools, named Olympus, applied for funding based on 1,600 students. Ohio Department of Education approved funding (deducted from public school district budgets) for 700 students rather than 1,600. These charter schools received $1.17 million of school districts’ money as of the end of October.  (It would be interesting to know how much of the $1.17 million went to St Aloysius and Charter School Specialists of Pickerington.)  All eight charter schools, with a combined enrollment of 128 students, have closed.  Three of the eight schools had a total of 15 students for which these charter schools received $29,200 per student for two months of instruction or the equivalent of over $130,000 per student per school year.  The spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) was asked by a Dispatch reporter if any of the funds could be recovered. The ODE response was that he didn’t know if any individual could be held financially responsible for any overpayment.”  The details of Phillis’ comment are confirmed by the Columbus Dispatch.

For many of us across Ohio, for years there has been a sense of mystery about St. Aloysius Orphanage. How did  this former orphanage get so much power from the legislature to authorize charter schools all across the state?  Whoever ensured that organizations like St. Aloysius Orphanage got approved as Ohio’s charter school authorizers continues to ensure that the same favored authorizers continue to operate.

The Washington Post recently examined incoming New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s education platform as a challenge to the education policies of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  DeBlasio has expressed concern about public stewardship of charter schools.  One of the things DeBlasio has promised is to begin charging rent when well-heeled charter schools occupy public school buildings. DeBlasio has flatly stated that “programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.”  Earlier this fall  Success Academy charters, which have attracted additional state grants as well as private money, led a protest across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest DeBlasio’s proposal that such charters begin paying rent.  Eva Moskowitz, a well-connected former member of the NYC city council, is being paid $475,000 to run Success Academy’s charter schools.  According to The Washington Post, that is “more than twice the salary of the city’s schools chancellor.”