Please Submit a Comment Supporting Stringent New Rules for the Federal Charter Schools Program

Last week this blog covered the news that the U.S. Department of Education has published a notice in the Federal Register proposing new rules to strengthen oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). It is urgently important for each one of us—parents, educators, advocates, and citizens who care about the careful stewardship of federal tax dollars—to write and submit a formal comment expressing support for stronger oversight of the Charter Schools Program.

Our comments are especially important to counter the voices of charter school lobbyists and proponents of marketplace school choice who are mounting strong opposition to the new regulations. Here is Robert Maranto in a commentary published last week  by the New York Post: “Starting in the Reinventing Government era, Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama praised… charter schools for their innovations… Even traditional liberal Hillary Clinton got boos from a National Education Association audience during the 2016 presidential campaign when she made positive remarks about charter schools… But now, with Democrats going woke and a new president in town, the U.S. Department of Education has declared war on charter schools, using obscure bureaucratic rulemaking to kill the federal charter-school program without having to explain why.”

Even the Washington Post has published an editorial, The Biden Administration’s Sneak Attack on Charter Schools, opposing the balanced and sensible new rules the Department of Education has proposed for the purpose of improving oversight of this program.  In a recent blog, Diane Ravitch puts the Washington Post‘s opposition to the Department’s proposed rules into some historical perspective.

What specific dangerous practices in the charter school sector would, under the new rules, disqualify a charter school from receiving funding from the Charter Schools Program?

First — Even though the Elementary and Secondary Education Act forbids the allocation of federal dollars to for-profit charter schools, the owners of for-profit charter management organizations (CMOs) have learned how to get around the law. The U.S. Department of Education has proposed to stop the misallocation of federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) dollars to for-profit charter school management companies that hide behind the nonprofit charter schools they manage under sweeps contracts. This rule would be especially relevant in places like Ohio, where we have learned over two decades about the shady practices of charter management organizations. The new rules would at least make schools engaged in such practices ineligible to receive federal dollars from the Charter Schools Program. In the decade after David Brennan launched the notorious White Hat Management Company, the Akron Beacon Journal’s reporters Dennis Willard and Doug Oplinger taught us, month after month, year after year, about how Brennan’s charter management organization (CMO) openly recruited the company’s friends to form nonprofit boards who would open individual charter schools and then turn over more than 95 percent of Ohio’s public tax dollars to White Hat to manage the school under what has become known as a sweeps contract. The nonprofit board had no role in operating the school, and no oversight over how the money was spent or how much Brennan took as profit. We learned again and again that when one of White Hat’s Hope or Life Skills charter schools closed, the management company kept all the equipment and books purchased originally with public tax dollars.

In 2018, when Brennan became ill and subsequently died, ACCEL, a for-profit charter management organization run by Ron Packard, took over the White Hat charter school empire. ACCEL also acquired management of Cleveland’s I Can charter schools and the schools of another collapsing charter management company (CMO), MOSAICA, as well as Brennan’s Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy, OHDELA.  Reporter Jeff Bryant has shown how ACCEL’s finances are complicated by private equity investment intended quickly to produce significant profits from his supposedly nonprofit charter schools managed by ACCEL under sweeps contracts. ACCEL is really part of Pansophic Learning whose investors include a Saudi private equity firm, Safanad, whose CEO Kamal Bahamdan, leads Bahamdan Investment Group. Bryant also shows that Packard and his partners own Global School Properties Ohio, LLC, which leases school buildings—at exorbitant rents— back to the nonprofit charter school boards that are managed by Packard’s ACCEL CMO.

Second — When a charter school asks for Charter Schools Program startup funds, the Department has proposed another rule requiring a community impact statement to ensure that there is a need for a new charter school in the community and that the school won’t promote racial segregation. The federal Charter Schools Program must ensure that grants to charter school startups do not violate the principles which the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for enforcing by its own Office for Civil Rights. The U.S. Department of Education is charged with requiring that public schools promote racial diversity and an inclusive welcome for all children. The Department must protect equal access at publicly funded schools for students of every race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

Neither should rapid expansion of charter schools undermine urban neighborhoods. The most serious consequence of out-of-control charter school expansion has been evident in large cities, where charter schools advertise lavishly to attract families from public schools. Recently we have watched as the Oakland Unified School District in California has begun shutting down neighborhood public schools.  In June of 2013, we all watched as Chicago closed 50 public neighborhood elementary and high schools. The Renaissance 2010 project had proclaimed that the strategy of opening a mass of new charter schools in competition with the public schools would improve education overall.  Instead, 88 percent of students in the public schools closed in 2013 were African American and communities across Chicago’s South and West Sides were subsequently left without a neighborhood-anchor public school.

Here, as stated in the Federal Register, are the two urgently important rules the U.S. Department of Education proposes to add:

First — “Each charter school receiving CSP funding must provide an assurance that it has not and will not enter into a contract with a for-profit management organization, including a non-profit management organization operated by or on behalf of a for-profit entity, under which the management organization exercises full or substantial administrative control over the charter school and, thereby, the CSP project.”

Second — “Each applicant must provide a community impact analysis that demonstrates that there is sufficient demand for the proposed project and that the proposed project would serve the interests and meet the needs of students and families in the community or communities from which students are, or will be, drawn to attend the charter school, and that includes the following:  (a) Descriptions of the community support and unmet demand for the charter school, including any over-enrollment of existing public schools or other information that demonstrates demand for the charter school, such as evidence of demand for specialized instructional approaches. (b) Descriptions of the targeted student and staff demographics and how the applicant plans to establish and maintain racially and socio-economically diverse student and staff populations, including proposed strategies (that are consistent with applicable legal requirements) to recruit, enroll, and retain a diverse student body and to recruit, hire, develop, and retain a diverse staff and talent pipeline at all levels (including leadership positions).”

Please submit a comment supporting the Department’s new stronger regulations. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the complicated language and presentation of the new rules in the Federal Register.  Begin your comment by thanking the Department of Education for strengthening  long-needed accountability in this program.  In simple prose, explain your support for each of the proposed new rules for the Charter Schools Program. In your comment, if you like, you may quote the language (above) of each rule followed by your reason for believing the new regulation is so important.  Your comment may be as long or as short as you like—a few sentences or several paragraphs.  Longer comments must be submitted as attached documents. Here is the comment I have submitted.

You can submit your comment HERE, and you must submit the comment before April 13, 2022.

If you are not planning to write your own comment, you should definitely send the Network for Public Education’s action alert letter, but I urge you to personalize your letter by adding a few sentences of your own.

The board of Ohio Public Education Partners has also taken a strong position supporting stronger regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. PEP also provides guidance for writing and submitting a comment.