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.