Federal Charter Schools Program a Fountain of Corruption and Disruption

19 Apr

By Thomas Ultican 4/19/2020

Last year, the Network for Public Education (NPE) published two investigations of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). The first one called Asleep at the Wheel came in March. In it they made several claims including that hundreds of millions of dollars had gone to schools that never opened or were shut down. The authors, Carol Burris and Jeff Bryant, stated, “Therefore, we recommend that Congress end funding for new charter grants coming from CSP.” Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, harshly criticized the report to Congress saying, “It makes sweeping conclusions without supporting data or methodological rigor.”  In response, NPE redoubled efforts and in December published Still Asleep at the Wheel where they documented that their conservative claims in the first report under-reported the extent of negligence associated with the CSP.

DeVos Graphic

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

The Charter Schools Program

After Walter Mondale’s crushing defeat in 1984, a group of mostly southern Democrats including Bill Clinton founded the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). According to a 1997 article in the New Republic,

“… [T]he DLC’s mission was to wrest the Democratic Party away from its left-wing establishment—particularly minority interest groups and labor unions—in order to transform it into a party that championed middle-class values. The old Democrats called for minimum wage increases, antipoverty programs, protectionism, and school busing; the DLC’s self-described new Democrats sought balanced budgets, welfare reform, free trade agreements, and charter schools.”

In his book Kochland, Christopher Leonard wrote, “If the new era was defined by any term, it was still the soupy and ambiguous term of ‘neoliberalism,’ which combined the machinery of a welfare state with deregulatory efforts for the select few special interest groups that had the money and lobbying power to make their case heard in Washington, DC.”

The Charter Schools Program was established in Title 10 of the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. The purposes cited were to provide support for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools. The intent stated was to enhance parent and student choices among public schools.  The business men and politicians writing the law believed these choices and standards would result in higher student achievement. In his paper “Schooling the State: ESEA and the Evolution of the U.S. Department of Education,” Patrick McGuinn explained,

“In the 1994 ESEA reauthorization, President Clinton—a former “education governor” and ‘New Democrat’— secured changes that would push states to increase performance reporting and embrace educational accountability. Under this new ESEA and a companion piece of legislation, Goals 2000, states were required to establish academic standards in each grade and create tests to assess whether students had mastered the standards. The tests were to be administered to all poor children at least once in grades three through five, six through nine, and ten through twelve.”

In “Still Asleep,” Burris recites,

“Begun with just $6 million in 1995, Congressional appropriations for the CSP jumped to $190 million by 2001 and nearly $219 million in 2004. In 2019, the federal Charter Schools Program was funded with $440 million in taxpayer dollars.”

The charter school theory was that these privately operated schools without interference from state education departments and local school districts would unleash dramatic innovation and improvement. In response to “Asleep,” DeVos wrote Representative Grijalva stating, “Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes has shown that charter school students outperform their peers in traditional public schools.” However, her Education department’s 2019 study concluded that charter schools do not get better academic results than public schools.

When Bill Clinton first pushed charter school legislation, it was promoted as an experiment. The experiment is now 25-years old. This new class of privatized schools has come with many unintended consequences. They have driven up education costs through the inefficiencies associated with running dual systems; they have undermined teacher professionalism; they have weakened one of the great pillars of democracy in America and they have diminished the role of schools as a unifying historical entity in neighborhoods. Unfortunately, they have not unleashed dramatic innovation and improvement; just disruption.

Asleep at the Wheel

The March 2019 paper “Asleep at the Wheel,” states in the executive summary,

“The federal outlays we examined are not modest expenditures amounting to little more than rounding errors. In its 2015 analysis, CSP stated that since its inception in 1994, the program had provided $3.3 billion to fund the startup, replication, and expansion of charter schools, creating 40 percent of operational public charter schools in the nation. We estimate that program funding has grown to well over $4 billion. That could bring the total of the potential waste to around $1billion.

“The waste of public dollars on closed charter schools is not the only concern. Of the grant recipients that manage to stay open, we uncovered extensive evidence that raises serious questions as to whether or not these schools are truly ‘high quality,’ meeting the CSP goal of providing equitable access for disadvantaged students.

“Through detailed examination of CSP’s application process, and by comparing claims made by charter grant applicants to information on state databases and school websites, we found numerous examples of federal tax dollars being misspent due to an inattentive process that routinely accepts applicants’ claims without scrutiny.”

“The CSP’s own analysis from 2006-2014 of its direct and state pass through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.”

On April 10, 2019, Secretary of Education DeVos testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor where she was repeatedly queried about different claims made in “Asleep at the Wheel.” When Wisconsin Congressman Pocan asked about the more than $200 million grant to IDEA Charter Schools and their plan to lease a private jet for 6-years at $2 million per year, DeVos deflected and never answered the question but she did say, “The report that you referenced has been totally debunked as propaganda.” That was a lie. It still has not been totally debunked.

In a written reply to follow up questions by the committee DeVos stated,

“Quite simply, the Network for Public Education is anti-reform, anti-charter and anti-choice; accordingly, its report represents nothing more than a political attack.”

“Unfortunately, several of your colleagues appear to have embraced this report without a careful examination of it. This rush to judgment risks fracturing the longstanding bipartisan support for public charter schools, which so many American families have come to rely upon as the only alternative to failing public schools.”

 “What isn’t debatable is that the Network for Public Education had a purpose when it published its report: to smear public charter schools, the CSP program and its grantees under the guise of research. It makes sweeping conclusions without supporting data or methodological rigor.”

“Since 2001, of the 5,265 charter schools that have received funding through a State entity or directly from the Department, 634 did not open and are unlikely to open in the future. As the developers of these schools received only CSP “planning” funds, which serve the specific purpose of enabling a charter school developer to explore the feasibility of opening a new charter school, the average award size for these schools was significantly lower than the average award size for CSP “implementation” grants and subgrants. In total, the funds awarded comprise less than 3.5 percent of the more than $2 billion in total awards made to public charter schools during the same period.”

The President of NPE, Diane Ravitch, has a long history of championing standards based education reform informed by standardized testing. It was only after reviewing years of data around 2007 that she concluded it was not working. She certainly never gave up on the idea of improving public education. Her criticism of charter schools has been the lack of oversight, profiteering and fraud that have plagued the industry.

As far as school “choice” is concerned. In her book School Choice, educator and NPE supporter Mercedes Schneider quoted a 2012 Educational Research Alliance study noting, “The combined pressure to enroll a greater number of students and raise test scores to meet state targets seems to have created perverse incentives, encouraging the practice of screening and selecting students.” Schneider observed, “[Milton] Friedman’s idea of the market as a disinterested player in the game of choice simply is not consistent with practice.”

Ironically, Secretary DeVos has a well known anti-public education bias. Christina Rizga wrote about the DeVoses’ philanthropy for Mother Jones stating,

“… [T]here’s the DeVoses’ long support of vouchers for private, religious schools; conservative Christian groups like the Foundation for Traditional Values, which has pushed to soften the separation of church and state; and organizations like Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has championed the privatization of the education system.”

DeVos asserting NPE “makes sweeping conclusions without supporting data or methodological rigor” is a baseless claim. One of the reasons no one has been able to convincingly refute the conclusions in either “Asleep” or “Still Asleep” is because of the quality of the supporting data used and the careful rigor applied.

DeVos indicated that the spending on “ghost charters” [charters that never opened] was not nearly as high as stated. In a Washington Post article, Burris used DeVos’s data to defend the paper. DeVos stated, “In total, the funds awarded comprise less than 3.5 percent of the more than $2 billion in total awards made to public charter schools during the same period.” Burris pointed out,

“The total for grants in the 2015 data set we used for our report is $1,794,548,157. Of that amount, 3.5 percent is $62,809,185. Our report said $45.5 million was wasted on ghost schools. Again, it appears as if we did not catch all of the waste.”

Burris also noted that of the 5,265 grantee schools DeVos cited only 3,138 were still in existence according to a department contracted WestEd presentation. That means 2,127 schools either never opened or were closed; a rate of 40.4% of all charters that were funded from active grants during those years. In “Still Asleep,” the percentage of failed charter schools over the same period was stated as 37%.

In other words, using DeVos’s numbers and official reports contracted by the US Department of Education for checking; in all cases the NPE numbers proved to be conservative and accurate.

Conclusion

Both “Asleep” and “Still Asleep” are well researched fair important studies illuminating the profound corruption in the federal Charter School Program. “Still Asleep” notes, “Hundreds of millions of dollars sent to states with few rules of the road have resulted in the massive waste of federal tax dollars, as grants were doled out to individuals who had no credentials or experience to open up a new school.”

“Asleep” and “Still Asleep” are forty and forty-eight pages in length respectively. The data presented and the illustrative charter school antidotes are meticulously documented. These two documents reveal a corrupt raid on taxpayer money which is negatively impacting K-12 education in America. The “Still Asleep” recommendations seem like common sense. They urge:

“We therefore strongly recommend that Congress end appropriations for new charter school grants in the upcoming budget and continue funding only for obligated amounts only to legitimate projects. Once those grants have been closed, we recommend that the CSP be ended and that charter schools continue to receive federal support only through other federal funding streams such as Title I and IDEA. Students, not charter school entrepreneurs, should benefit from federal funds.

“We also recommend thorough audits by Congress of previous grant awards, the establishment of regulations to ensure grant awards still under term are being responsibly carried out and that misspent money is returned to the federal coffers.”

 

5 Responses to “Federal Charter Schools Program a Fountain of Corruption and Disruption”

  1. ciedie aech April 19, 2020 at 4:29 pm #

    The most devastating problem with “profound” corruption is that the bigger and broader and more profound it becomes, the more it is accepted as a part of “normal” society.

  2. L. L. April 24, 2020 at 12:59 am #

    Various media report about the DeVos family’s connections to the Mackinac Center (Michigan). At Michigan’s EdChoice site, a posted article begins with the following, “The Mackinac Center and the Michigan Catholic Conference continue to promote private school choice through a constitutional amendment. However, newly elected Gov. Whitner is not a private school choice supporter.”
    Whitner is a Democratic governor. Across the nation numerous state Catholic Conferences promote school privatization.

    • tultican April 24, 2020 at 3:45 am #

      That anti-public education vein running through the Catholic Church is understandable but a very big problem.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Betsy DeVos Hands Out Another $200 Million, Mostly to Rich Corporate Charter Chains | Diane Ravitch's blog - April 21, 2020

    […] Ultican reviewed the two NPE reports and recounted Betsy DeVos’s unsurprising hostile response to them. Why would she relinquish control over $440 million, which helps corporate chains that divert money […]

  2. School in the time of Coronavirus #3 – Some Questions | Live Long and Prosper - April 28, 2020

    […] school systems that work against each other? This is the time to rethink charter schools. In “Federal Charter Schools Program a Fountain of Corruption and Disruption,” Thomas Ultican provides compelling reasons why charters have seen their […]

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