OP-ED: Stop federal funding of charter schools

Jeff Bryant
Tribune News Service
FILE - In this June 5, 2018 file photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations hearing in Washington. The dramatic Senate testimony by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford comes as DeVos considers new guidelines that could drastically change the way allegations of sexual violence are investigated on college campuses. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Democratic members of Congress recently grilled Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos over her budget proposing huge cuts to programs including the Special Olympics while calling for a $60 million hike in spending on charter schools.

Some of their questions were prompted by a new report that I co-authored with Network for Public Education Executive Director Carol Burris. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., asked DeVos how she found extra money for charters in a budget “full of cruel cuts to education,” especially given the report’s findings of “waste and abuse.”

The report, titled “Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride,” found that up to $1 billion awarded by the U.S. Department of Education Charter Schools Program, in more than 1,000 grants, went to charter schools that never opened or opened for only brief periods before being shut down.

In California, the state with the most charter schools, between 2004 and 2014, 306 schools that received direct or indirect federal funding closed or never opened, 111 closed within a year, and 75 never opened at all – a 39 percent failure rate. The cost to taxpayers was more than $108 million.

Of the charter schools in Michigan that received federal money, at least 27 never opened. Many more opened and quickly closed, and of the schools that managed to stay open, we found troubling results, including a grant recipient that received $110,000 in federal funds but is actually a Baptist Church.

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In Idaho, federal grants totaling more than $21.6 million included more than $2.3 million going to schools that never opened or closed after brief periods of service. A state commission imposed a range of academic sanctions on 13 of the 25 charter schools up for renewal in the state. Of those 13 schools, nine had received federal grants.

At the root of these problems is the slipshod process used by the Department of Education to review charter school grant applications. We often found contradictions between the information provided by applicants and publicly available data. Numerous applications cherry-picked or massaged achievement and/or demographic data that reviewers never bothered to fact-check.

The Department of Education’s own Office of the Inspector General has conducted several audits of the Charter Schools Program, and has warned the department that federal funds going to charter schools are at risk.

Defending against scathing criticisms from Rep. DeLauro and other Democrats, DeVos acknowledged that waste and fraud in the charter grant program had been around for “some time.” But when asked by the members of the House subcommittee what her department was doing to retrieve some of the money, she couldn’t provide a response.

In the meantime, the 13.6 percent boost DeVos and Trump want to give to charters in their current Department of Education budget proposal, is a sharp contrast to the enormous $8.5 billion they propose to cut from the rest of the federal government’s education outlays.

DeVos praised the planned increase for the charter grant program as a step forward for “education freedom.” But our report suggests that increasing federal funds for this program would likely perpetuate more fraud.

We need a moratorium on any new grants coming from the federal Charter Schools Program and a thorough audit of money that has been spent. DeVos needs to account for her reckless administration of this program and be held responsible.

— Jeff Bryant owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by the Tribune News Service.