U.S. Senate Should Eliminate Federal Charter Schools Program in FY 22 Budget Resolution

Both chambers of Congress have been drafting their budget resolutions. Once they accomplish this work, Congress and the President, who presented his budget proposal in April, will negotiate federal spending priorities and pass a final federal budget. This process is supposed to be complete by September 30, because October 1 begins Fiscal Year 2022.

The President’s budget proposal has excited public education supporters by radically increasing funding for Full-Service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million. The President’s proposal also doubles Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children and increases funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. When the House of Representatives passed its budget resolution on July 5, members of the House pleased parents, public school educators and community advocates by including all three of these priorities and generously funding public schools.

The House budget resolution goes one step farther, however, by cutting $40 million from the $440 million federal Charter Schools Programs.  Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “Antipathy to the program has grown on Capitol Hill among Democrats in recent years, although the charter program still draws on bipartisan support.” Ujifusa also points to House support for a significant reform to this program: “The bill would prohibit federal money ‘from being awarded to charter schools run by for-profit entities.’ Charter schools run by such organizations have created significant controversy in the education community.”

What are charter schools?

Charter schools are a form of private contracting, but across the 45 states which have authorized charter schools, the state laws that created these schools are different. Some states let school districts themselves authorize charter schools; other states override local authorization through state authority or permit other outside authorizers.  And the amount of and quality of oversight varies. The original goal was to stimulate innovation by reducing what charter proponents alleged was the bureaucratic regulatory straitjacket that, they claimed, constrains traditional public schools.  Charter schools originated in the early 1990s, and now, nearly three decades later as the charter school sector has matured, we discover what might have been predicted in an education sector paid for with public tax dollars but at the same time operated privately with little oversight.

What is the federal Charter Schools Program?  

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 45 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the country.

Four Reasons Why the U.S. Senate Should Go Farther than the House and Eliminate the Charter Schools Program Altogether

While it is certainly a great idea reduce this year’s appropriation for the federal Charter Schools Program and to prohibit federal tax dollars from flowing into the coffers of those who are reaping huge profits by operating chains of charter schools, I don’t think the House has gone far enough.  The Senate is still drafting its budget resolution. I hope Senators will eliminate this program.

First, over the years we have learned about how in many places charter schools operate as parasites—sucking money out of public school budgets.

In a study published by In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer documents that charter schools undermine the fiscal viability of Oakland, California’s public schools by pulling away $57.3 million annually in state per-pupil public school enrollment reimbursements “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…  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.”

Further, Rutgers University’s Mark Weber and Julia Sass Rubin demonstrate that, “New Jersey charter schools enroll a fundamentally different student population than the districts where their students reside. New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. Furthermore, the special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have lesscostly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools.”  School districts must absorb the additional costs of educating a high percentage of each district’s students with special needs.

Second, the federal government, which awards Charter Schools Program grants, and the 45 states, which authorize charter schools under state law, fail to provide adequate oversight of charter schools.

In 2019, the Network for Public Education released Asleep at the Wheel, a detailed report examining the operation of the federal Charter Schools Program from its launch in 1994 until 2015: “Hundreds of millions of federal taxpayer dollars have been awarded to charter schools that never opened or opened and then shut down… The CSP’s grant approval process appears to be based on the application alone, with no attempt to verify the information presented… The CSP’s review process to award grants does not allow the verification of applicants’ claims… Grants have been awarded to charter schools that establish barriers to enrollment, discouraging or denying access to certain students… The (Education) Department does not conduct sufficient oversight of grants to State Entities or State Education Agencies, despite repeated indications that the states are failing to monitor outcomes or offer full transparency on their subgrants… The CSP’s grants to charter management organizations are beset with problems including conflicts of interest and profiteering.”

The Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General has also conducted a series of scathing reports on lack of oversight in the federal Charter Schools Program.  For example, in 2018, the OIG investigated the quality of the Department’s oversight when charter schools shut down.  The Department of Education did not track whether the state departments of education properly oversaw the disposal of a school’s assets when it shut down to protect the tax dollars that had been invested. The OIG also discovered that, “In three selected states, the State Education Agency and/or authorizer required charter school officials to notify parents or legal guardians of a charter school’s impending closure… However, we found that for 23 of the 89 closed charter schools in our sample, school officials did not notify parents or legal guardians of displaced students of the charter schools’ impending closure and did not provide information regarding alternative public school placements and appropriate assistance with enrollment.”

Third, fraud and corruption run rampant in this publicly funded but privately operated education sector whose oversight depends on the actions of 45 different state legislatures, whose members are the targets of well-paid lobbyists hired by charter school advocates and school operators.  One possible source of leverage is reform in the federal Charter Schools Program.

Fraud, corruption and outright theft is common.  In April of this year, CNBC reported that Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep charter schools in Harlem and a former official in the Obama administration, was arrested for stealing $218,005.00 from Democracy Prep Charter Schools “to maintain a bank account minimum that gave him a more favorable interest rate for a mortgage on his… Manhattan residence.”  The Network for Public Education has set up a web page to track the hundreds of scandals reported year after year across the United States in local newspapers.

A prime example of the problem is the Charter School Program grants for the IDEA charter chain in Texas and Louisiana.  In 2019, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reported that IDEA charter schools had received one of the largest federal Charter Schools Program grants that year: “IDEA, a Texas-based charter network, won an expected $116 million over five years. The network’s application says it will use the money to add grades at 56 schools and create 38 new schools across Texas; in New Orleans and East Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and in Tampa Bay, Florida… (IDEA received) what appears to the largest award ever directly given to a charter network through the federal program. It’s the fifth time IDEA has won a Charter Schools Program grant, including a 2017 award of $67 million over five years.  The network was hatched in 2000 in Donna, Texas, along the Mexico border. It currently runs 79 schools serving 45,000 students. The network has dramatic growth goals, aiming to reach 100,000 students by 2022 and 250,000 students in a decade.”  Then in 2020, Barnum reported that IDEA charter schools won another five-year Charter Schools Program grant, this time of $72 million.  But in April of 2020 we also learned something else about the management of IDEA charter schools: CEO Tom Torkleson was forced to resign when it was shown he had bought a private jet with the school’s dollars for the use of the school’s executives and their families and that he used $400,000 of the school’s revenue every year on luxury sky boxes for sporting events for the schools’ employees.  Now the two women who replaced Torkelson as CEO and Chief Operating Officer have been fired for misusing the huge charter company’s revenue.

Fourth: Neither the federal government nor the states have consistently protected students’ rights in charter schools.

In the latest example, described by Network for Public Education’s Executive Director Carol Burris, a private North Carolina white-flight academy found a way to transform itself into a publicly funded charter school without desegregating.  Burris explains that racial segregation in charter schools is a long-running problem in North Carolina: “How North Carolina’s charter schools are used to resist integration is well documented, as more predominantly White charter schools pop up in integrated or majority-minority school districts.  For example, a 2017 study—by researchers Helen F. Ladd, John B. Holbein and Charles T. Clotfelter of Duke University—found the state’s charter schools ‘increasingly serving the interests of relatively able White students in racially imbalanced schools’ with the number of students in predominantly White charter schools nearly doubling as the number of minority students concentrated in charters that were more than 90 percent minority.”

Recently Hobgood Academy, an all white private school converted to a charter.  Burris explains that while in the past “segregation came with a cost—$5000 a year in tuition,” when the school decided to become a charter school, advocates posted this disclaimer: “No current law forces any diversity whether it be by age sex, race, creed.”

Despite its segregation, however, Burris reports that Hopgood Academy received money from the federal Charter Schools Program: “Thirty of the 42 charter schools that to date have received CSP grants via the North Carolina Department of Education have reported demographic information.  Of those schools, more than one-third (11) have significant overrepresentation of White students or a significant underrepresentation of Black students compared with the population of the public school district in which they are located. In addition to Hobgood… (there) are four examples of other schools that got the money.”

Burris concludes: “It is easy to blame Betsy DeVos for giving a $26.6 million grant to a state whose charter sector has come under repeated fire for increasing segregation in an already segregated school system.  Now the Biden administration and Secretary Miguel Cardona own the grant.  Indeed, they own the whole flawed Charter Schools Program.”

Congress also owns this program and it is time for the Biden administration and Congress to make the federal Charter Schools Program a relic of the past.

Eliminating Federal Charter Schools Program Would Curb Academic and Financial Abuses by Charter Operators

Charter schools are a form of private contracting, but across the 45 states which have authorized charter schools, the state laws that created these schools are different. Some states let school districts themselves authorize charter schools; other states override local authorization through state authority or permit other outside authorizers.  And the amount of and quality of oversight varies. The original goal was to stimulate innovation by reducing what charter proponents alleged was the bureaucratic regulatory straitjacket that, they claimed, constrains traditional public schools.

This blog will take Memorial Day off.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, June 2.

Charter schools originated in the early 1990s, and now, nearly three decades later as the charter school sector has matured, we discover what might have been predicted in an education sector paid for with public tax dollars but at the same time operated privately with little oversight. The Network for Public Education has set up a web page to track the hundreds of scandals reported year after year across the United States in local newspapers.

But there are also the stories of larger and more shocking scandals, often involving mismanagement by the chains of charter schools, some of them operated by charter management organizations (CMOs).  Here are four examples reported just this spring.  Three of the scandals are financial; one involves the violation of students’ rights in a CMO that made its reputation with zero-tolerance discipline.

  • In early March, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a giant, online charter school put out of business in the winter of 2018 after years of charging the state per-pupil fees for, it turns out, students who were not participating in its online program, was still in court trying to block the state of Ohio from recovering $80 million, only a portion of the money the enterprise had ripped off over nearly two decades of operation: “ECOT appealed… (a lower court) decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, and justices heard oral arguments from both sides on Tuesday (March 2)….  It could take several months for the court to issue an opinion.” ECOT was technically a nonprofit, but its owner, William Lager, owned the two for-profit companies that operated the school and provided its curriculum.  Lager is still trying to protect his profits.
  • Also in March, a prominent New York City chain of charter schools was fined $2.4 million in a federal district court case, this time for violating students’ rights: “Charter school network Success Academy, which touts its commitment to children ‘from all backgrounds,’ has been ordered to pay over $2.4 million on a Judgment in a case brought by families of five young Black students with learning and other disabilities who sued after the children were pushed out of a Success Academy school in Brooklyn.  Success Academy’s efforts to oust the children even included the creation of a ‘Got to Go’ list, as reported by the New York Times in October 2015, which singled out the students they wanted to push out, including the five child plaintiffs.” New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools have established a reputation for a regimented school culture. For years, however, parents have complained that instead of helping students thrive, the school has established a pattern—for children who don’t fit the school’s culture or for children whose test scores will likely bring down the school’s overall average—of severely punishing the students or repeatedly suspending them until their parents pull them out of the school.
  • In late April, CNBC’s Dan Mangan reported that Seth Andrew, who founded the Democracy Prep charter schools in New York City’s Harlem and later worked as an education adviser in the Obama administration, was arrested for trying to steal $218,005 from the charter network: “Seth Andrew, who served as an education advisor in the Obama White House, was arrested Tuesday morning on charges of scheming to steal $218,005 from a public charter school network that he founded, federal authorities said. Andrew, 42, was busted in New York City, where he and his wife, CBS News anchor Lana Zak, have a residence valued at more than $2 million. The founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools is accused of using more than half of the allegedly stolen money from that network to maintain a bank account minimum that gave him a more favorable interest rate for a mortgage on his and Zak’s Manhattan residence.  Zak was not charged in the case. Prosecutors said Andrew, in 2019—more than two years after severing ties with Democracy Prep—looted  a series of escrow accounts he had previously set up for individual schools within Democracy Prep’s network, and then used their funds to open a business account in the name of one of the schools at a bank.”  A Washington Post‘s report adds: “Andrew’s career straddled the education field and government. In 2013, he joined the (Arne Duncan) Education Department. He later became a senior adviser in the Office of Educational Technology, a position at the (Obama) White House.”
  • Finally, just this week, we can read about the latest scandal at the huge IDEA charter school chain which, Diane Ravitch reported a year ago, had 49,500 students in 91 schools across Texas and in Louisiana. The co-founder and CEO at that time, Tom Torkelson resigned when the media learned he had purchased a private jet with IDEA dollars for the use of its executives and their families and after it was reported that he had used $400,000 annually of IDEA’s money (collected from public tax dollars) on luxury sky boxes for sporting events for the schools’ employees. Now a year later, the Houston Chronicle reports that the woman who replaced Torkelson as CEO, JoAnn Gama, and IDEA’s Chief Operating Officer, Irma Munoz, “have been fired after a forensic review found ‘substantial evidence’ that top leaders at the state’s largest charter network misused money and staff for personal gain… The firings followed an anonymous tip received after the departures last year of two other high-ranking IDEA leaders, former CEO Tom Torkelson and former CFO Wyatt Truseheit… IDEA board members chose Gama, who co-founded IDEA in the late 1990s with Torkelson, as the organization’s next CEO. Around the same time, IDEA’s board members promised to make several financial and governance reforms, such as banning private air travel, curbing executive benefits, and ending business deals with leaders and their family members.”

It is mind boggling to try to imagine reining in a publicly funded but privately operated education sector whose oversight depends on the actions of 45 different state legislatures, whose members are are the targets of well-paid lobbyists hired by charter school advocates and school operators. One possible source of public leverage, however, is the federal Charter Schools Program, which the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report shows has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start or expand charter schools across the states and the District of Columbia. NPE reports that this federal program dating back to 1994 has provided some funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the United States. The Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have treated this program as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered by the Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement to stimulate social entrepreneurship by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits as a substitute for public operation of public schools.  NPE’s report documents the U.S. Department of Education’s chronic failure to oversee this program—created and sustained by people who believe in innovation but who lack commitment to careful public stewardship.

Just a year ago, for example, the IDEA charter school network received a large federal Charter Schools Program grant in a special category of grants for large multi-school operators. Commenting on the release of the names of 2020 Charter Schools Program grants, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reported: “The U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $200 million in grants to help 13 charter school networks from across the country expand. The largest grant, $72 million over five years, went to IDEA charter network, which has been rapidly growing throughout Texas and into other states and has already netted over $200 million in federal awards.” Less than a month after the 2020 Charter Schools Program awards were announced, Tom Torkelson resigned as CEO, and a year later his replacement and her CFO have been fired—all for financial mismanagement.

President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona should work with Congress to eliminate the federal Charter Schools Program.

POLITICO Article on Charter Schools Entirely Misses the Point

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”  (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217)  Because public education is systemic and schools are operated according to the law, it is possible to ensure that public schools protect the rights and serve the needs of all children, while charter schools are designed to serve the choices of individual families.

Charter schools were set up according to a theory of social entrepreneurship—the idea that if you give individuals enough freedom, they will experiment and innovate and do a better job of meeting the needs of particular students one school at a time.  Of course, our nation’s public schools have never fully embodied the principle of justice; like all core social institutions they have reflected the injustices and biases of the society they represent. But over the generations, as our society has begun to acknowledge racial and ethnic biases and realized that disabled people ought to be made full participants in our society, our representatives have passed laws and regulations to protect the rights of children formerly left out of the blessings promised in our nation’s principles. Our representatives in Congress passed Title I as part of the War on Poverty in 1965 to supplement investment in the public schools that serve concentrations of our nation’s poorest children. In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to help public schools pay for expert teachers to support the needs of disabled children. And the courts have protected the rights of immigrant children—even undocumented students—in the public schools. Further, in accordance with the principles of equity embedded in many state constitutions, courts in a number of states have been able to demand legislative remedies to support services for children previously left out or left behind. Justice in our nation’s public schools is, by definition, a work in progress, dependent on good leadership in the context of our nation’s ideals.

In this year’s race for President, the candidates competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination have consistently demonstrated a realization that social entrepreneurship in education—embodied in Race to the Top, for example—has not fulfilled our society’s definition of justice and inclusion. Privately operated charter schools—like their cousins, tuition vouchers for private schools—provide escapes from the public system that continues to serve over 50 million of our nation’s children. But not all of the escapes have been academically adequate; many have ripped off the public investment; and the existence of the charter sector has imperiled the public school districts from which the charter schools suck money.  In many cases the growth of a charter school sector has left the public schools serving masses of poor children and immigrant children without essential operating funds.

Democrats have eschewed vouchers but for two decades have sought to, sort of, compromise—by claiming that privately operated charter schools are not really fully private because they are publicly funded. But they have at the same time been watching the damage to America’s public school districts and begun noticing that promised leaps in charter school academic achievement as measured by test scores have not materialized. The consensus on education policy now recognized by the majority of Democrats who ran for President this year—apart from devoted charter school supporters like Michael Benett and Cory Booker—is that justice for our children can best be realized by fully funding the public schools and working to intensify the effort to come closer to equity in public school investment across rich and poor districts.

Achieving equity in today’s alarmingly unequal society is an enormous challenge. In a stunning editorial last May, the NY Times editorial board declared: “Our urban areas are laced by invisible but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gaptoothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and, all too often short.  Cities continue to create vast amounts of wealth, but the distribution of those gains resembles the New York skyline: A handful of super-tall buildings, and everyone else in the shade… Our cities are broken because affluent Americans have been segregating themselves from the poor, and our best hope for building a fairer, stronger nation is to break down those barriers.”

Joe Biden’s education plan recognizes how our society’s shocking inequity affects the public schools.  He proposes to address long-standing funding injustices: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few. Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.’” Biden also pledges to, “Make sure children with disabilities have the support to succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. The Biden Administration will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.”

Last weekend, POLITICO’s Nicole Gaudiano questioned what she views as, perhaps, the political liability of Biden’s inattention to charter schools. Gaudiano blames the teachers unions, raising the tired old arch-conservative cliche that politicians who want to support traditional public education are mere captives of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. It is part of the long Republican cliche about the danger of unions in general and a remnant of Michelle Rhee’s screed that we have to put students first and protect our society from people who support adult interests. I suspect this sort of thinking also derives from some old biases we ought to have put behind us a long time ago—that teachers like child care workers are servants who ought to be working purely for the love of children without selfishly hoping to make a living.

Gaudiano explains that Biden may lose Black voters who want escapes from public schools and looks at the history of Democratic politicians supporting charter schools. She blames Biden’s support on the unions: “Charter schools have received support from presidents from both parties in recent years, including Bill Clinton’s push for the federal law to support startups.  Obama is credited with launching the first federal program to replicate and expand high-performing charters.  But the schools have always been a flashpoint, especially with powerful teachers unions who cast charters as competition for precious dollars for traditional public schools.”

It is interesting that Gaudiano quotes policy advocates from organizations known for prominently supporting the growth of the charter sector and of school privatization, but no organization working to build stronger investment in the public schools.  She quotes Margaret Fortune of the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools; Michael Petrilli of “the conservative Fordham Institute,” Charles Barone of “the pro-charter group Education Reform Now,” Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the neoliberal Andrew Rotherham of Bellweather Education Partners.

Explaining that Black and Hispanic voters are likely to support charter schools, Gaudiano defines the future of charter schools as a matter of racial politics. She seems unaware that in 2016, the national NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, passed a resolution, “calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools at least until such time as: charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools; public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system; charter schools cease expelling students that the public schools have a duty to educate; and charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

The  Movement for Black Lives supported the NAACP’s resolution, and the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) has strongly advocated for urban public school districts where the needs of public schools and poor children are often ill-served by the expansion of the charter school sector. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the Journey for Justice Alliance as “a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities… with more than 52,000 members across the United States.”

Strauss published a statement from Jitu Brown, J4J’s national director, explaining J4J’s support for the NAACP’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools: “To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted — and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children… We at the Journey for Justice Alliance are not anti-charter ideologues.  Many of our members send their children to both traditional public and charter schools.  We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them. Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago, ‘mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.’… We called for a moratorium on school privatization because of the realities on the ground. They include: Most charter operators can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better… Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers… Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation… The privatization movement uses deceptive language when promoting the growth of charter expansion. The notion of “parents voting with their feet” is often false. Look at what happened to Dyett High School in Chicago. In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities. The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools.”

The Network for Public Education has published a series of in-depth investigations of fraud, instability, and mismanagement across the charter school sector. Broken Promises tracks the trend of sudden charter school closures leaving students stranded—sometimes mid-school-year—without a school.  Charters and Consequences investigates fraud and corruption as tiny local California school districts collect state tax dollars to pad their own operating budgets by running shoddy storefront charter schools out of strip malls to draw students and these students’ state funding out of large urban districts. Finally the Network for Public Education has investigated the federal Charter Schools Program (here and here).  These reports document the U.S. Department of Education’s failure to oversee its own Charter Schools Program due to lack of a rigorous process for selecting qualified applicants and the utter absence of good record keeping and oversight.  The Charter Schools Program has seeded the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools but failed to oversee their operation—wasting tax dollars when more than a third of the schools it seeded never opened or quickly shut down.

It is too frequently assumed that when students leave a public school district to attend a charter school it is a financial  wash for the school district: the student leaves; the student no longer needs services; the school district no longer has to pay to educate that student. Therefore, the assumption is that the school district suffers no financial penalty when charter schools are opened within its boundaries. Two years ago, In the Public Interest hired the political economist Gordon Lafer to investigate the contention that the growth of the charter school sector has been fiscally neutral for public school districts. Instead Lafer documented that one school district alone, the Oakland Unified School District in California, loses a net amount of $57.3 million each year to the charter schools located within its boundaries.

Lafer explains how charter schools serve as a parasite on the public school districts where they operate: “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…  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.”

It is not only Joe Biden who seeks to turn the nation’s attention in this presidential election year to the critical need for equity in America’s public schools that serve 50 million of our children and adolescents. This year’s Democratic Party Platform declares the following principles regarding our public schools as the Party’s educational priority:  “As Democrats, we believe that education is a critical public good—not a commodity—and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every child, everywhere, is able to receive a world-class education that enables them to lead meaningful lives, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability status, language status, immigration or citizenship status, household income, or ZIP code… Our public schools are bedrock community institutions, and yet our educators are underpaid, our classrooms are overstuffed, and our school buildings have been neglected, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color… Democrats believe we can and must do better for our children, our educators, and our country. We are committed to making the investments our students and teachers need to build equity and safeguard humanity in our educational system and guarantee that every child can receive a great education.”

Charter School Support Fades: U.S. House Appropriators Seek to Cut $40 Million from Charter Schools Program

Last week, the Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, a body now dominated by Democrats, sent forward to the floor of the House an education appropriations proposal to cut—by 10 percent—Congressional funding for the federal Charter Schools Program. This year the program is funded at $440 million. The Democratic appropriations committee has proposed the allocation of $400 million for next year.

By contrast, the President’s budget—proposed in mid-March—reflects the priorities of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, who seeks an additional $60 million next year for a total Charter Schools Program allocation of $500 million in FY 2020.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describes the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed 2020 education budget: “A bill to increase the U.S. Department of Education’s budget by more than $4 billion is headed to the floor of the House of Representatives…  (T)he House appropriations committee approved legislation that would provide significant increases for grants aimed at disadvantaged students, after-school programming, and social-emotional learning…. While Democrats want more money for several programs, they want $40 million less for federal charter school grants, a cut of nearly 10 percent to $400 million.  The move symbolizes how opposition to charter schools has gained more traction in the Democratic Party recently….”

Ujifusa adds: ” It’s the first time since 2010 that Democrats have controlled the appropriations process in the chamber, but their bill is very, very far from becoming the law of the land… The legislation hasn’t been approved by the full House yet.  More importantly, the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, will likely introduce a bill that’s different in several key respects.”

But the move by the Appropriations Committee to cut charter school funding indicates an important political shift.  The proposed reduction is evidence that Democrats, who have been part of a bipartisan wave of support for neoliberal public-private partnership via charter schools are shifting their attention back to traditional public schools, which, after all, serve 50 million students.  Charters serve only 6 percent.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss explains that a series of scathing biennial reports from the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General—reports which have condemned the appalling absence of oversight of this program—have contributed to the Charter Schools Program’s collapsing reputation.  In addition to cutting the budget for the Charter Schools Program by $40 million, members of the House Appropriations Committee included a warning that the Department must improve management of the program.  Strauss publishes the Appropriations Committee’s warning: “The Committee is deeply concerned that the Department does not intend to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars when it comes to CSP (Charter Schools Program) funding, as it has rejected the multiple Ed-OIG (Office of Inspector General) audit recommendations.”

A scathing recent report from the Network for Public Education has also contributed to growing skepticism about the Charter Schools Program.  In the report, Asleep at the Wheel, the Network for Public Education documents the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars out of the total $4 billion that has been spent on the Charter Schools Program. A third of the schools whose startup or expansion was seeded by the Charter Schools Program never opened or, once open, soon shut down due to fiscal improprieties, financial collapse, or academic failure. (This blog has covered the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report here.)

Strauss describes a growing backlash against charter schools among Democrats: “Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars but operated by nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies with varying levels of oversight. Supporters say they are every bit as public as traditional districts, while critics say these schools are part of an effort to privatize public education. The Obama administration was instrumental in driving the growth of charters, even including it as a goal for states in its $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative. But recently the charter movement has arrived at what appears to be an inflection point. Many public school systems are complaining about losing significant funding to charters. Teacher strikes that began in 2018 and have continued this year throughout the country—including in Republican-led states—have helped change the debate about public education funding.”

Education Week’s Ujifusa explores growing disenchantment with charter schools among Democratic politicians: “President Barack Obama supported charter schools, and some Democrats—like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a 2020 presidential candidate—still do. But elsewhere, antipathy toward charters among Democrats and progressives has grown as a political force.” Ujifusa quotes Charles Barone regretting the House Appropriations’ action to cut the Charter Schools Program budget.  Barone is the chief policy officer for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a pro-charter PAC, founded more than a decade ago by New York hedge fund managers.

In a recent blog post, Diane Ravitch explains that Democrats for Education Reform’s claim—that it represents Democrats—seems to be fading: “The Democratic state parties in California and Colorado have denounced DFER as a corporate front that should drop the word ‘Democrat’ from its title.”

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/.