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An open letter to Betsy DeVos, from two leading public education advocates

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified before the House Education Committee and had a brief discussion with Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) about charter schools.

Here's how some of it went:

STEVENS: So your budget proposes to eliminate billions of dollars in K-12 programs, from professional development for teachers and principals, to after school programming, to mental health services, and one of my personal favorites: STEM education. And obviously, we’ve heard you talk about some of the hard decisions that you’ve had to make. Yet, somehow, you found $60 million for an increase in the federal charter school program. I just really wonder if charter schools are the answer here, whereas it really should be the Title I funding. A recent report by the Network for Public Education found that more than $1 billion in charter school program funds have been given to support charter schools that never opened or they’ve closed -- they kind of abandoned the children and families. Since 2010, 25 schools in Michigan that have received $1.7 million in charter school funding just never even opened. And the Inspector General found waste, fraud, and abuse due to the frequency of school closures in the charter school program. Can you just explain for me the mark of effective programs here, and can you justify the proposed increase for the charter school program, and on what measures or studies you have been using?
DeVOS: Let me first comment on the study you’re referring to. I’m not sure you can even call it a study. We’re looking more closely at it of course, and anything that is truly waste, fraud, or abuse we will certainly address. But the reality is that the study was really funded by and promoted by those who have a political agenda against charter schools. And the other reality is that there are currently over one million students on wait lists for charter schools in the country. So, we want to see more charter schools, not fewer. More students that can access options that are right for them, not fewer.

The single most telling sentence Betsy DeVos said to Congress this week

The report to which they refer is “Asleep at the Wheel,” published in March by the Network for Public Education, a group that advocates for policies supporting publicly funded school districts. It says the U.S. government has wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools that never opened, or opened and then were closed because of mismanagement and other reasons. The report said the U.S. Education Department has not adequately monitored how its grant money has been spent by Republican and Democratic administrations.

I wrote about the report, which was slammed by many supporters of charter schools who do not want restrictions on how charters operate. Those supporters include DeVos, who has made clear in speeches and testimony that she believes the market, and not the government, should decide the fate of schools.

Report: U.S. government wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools and still fails to adequately monitor grants

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated — some by for-profit companies. About 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend charter schools, with 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico having passed laws permitting them. In Los Angeles, 20 percent of children attend charters, while nearly half of the District’s schoolchildren do.

Supporters first described charters as competitive vehicles to push traditional public schools to reform, but the narrative changed over time. Charters became a centerpiece of the “choice” movement. Supporters of that movement say it is important to offer families alternatives in publicly funded school systems. Opponents say it is an effort to privatize public education.

In the exchange above, DeVos says the report was “funded and promoted by those who have a political agenda against charter schools.” The report was written by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education and a former award-winning New York high school principal, and Jeff Bryant, a communications expert and advocacy journalist who is chief correspondent for the Independent Media Institute’s “Our Schools” project.

Burris has written repeatedly on this blog about problems with the charter school sector. The Network for Public Education was co-founded by historian and advocate Diane Ravitch, who worked in the administration of President George H.W. Bush but later became the titular leader of a movement against school privatization efforts and school policies based on standardized tests.

There’s a backlash against charter schools. What’s happening and why.

Here is an open letter to DeVos written by Burris and Ravitch about charter schools and their report:

Dear Secretary DeVos,

We were deeply disappointed by your public dismissal of the Network for Public Education’s report on the performance of the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program entitled “Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride.” We assume you have not read it.

You characterized the Network for Public Education as having a “political agenda against charter schools.” The Network for Public Education is a non-partisan, non-profit advocacy organization that supports public schools governed by and accountable to communities. Past and present members of our Board of Directors are Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Directors live in Blue States and Red States. They represent urban, suburban and rural communities. Our President, Diane Ravitch, was Assistant Secretary of Education for research in the administration of President George H. W. Bush and counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

The Network for Public Education is indeed critical of corruption, incompetence and graft in the charter industry. The report explains how more than 1000 charters funded by the federal government never opened or closed. We relied on state and federal data, as well as prior investigative reports, to demonstrate that the federal government wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on these failed schools. As Secretary of Education you too should be concerned about the blatant waste of taxpayer dollars and the misrepresentations applicants make in order to secure those funds. Most of what we document in the report predates your time in office, so you should not be dismissive or defensive about what occurred on your predecessors’ watch. However, if you do not address the root causes, the problems will continue.

Our well-documented report is based on fact, not opinion. It contains 106 references. The most frequent citations, which you will find throughout the report, lead to documents on your Department’s website. We are now extending that documentation by posting lists of defunct charter schools and the amount awarded to them via the U.S. Department of Education State Educational Agencies (SEA) grants between 2006-2014.

Here is a link to 109 Michigan charter schools, called “academies,” that were awarded Charter School Program (CSP) grants from 2006-2014 but either never opened or closed. That number represents 42 percent of all recipients. Those highlighted in maroon shut down. Those highlighted in tan are schools that received funds but never opened. You will find ample documentation for your staff to review our work.

As anxious as you are to open new charter schools, if nearly half of them do not make it, we suggest that something is wrong with the selection process.

In total, $20,272,078 was awarded to defunct Michigan charter schools. And yet, in 2018 you awarded the State of Michigan an additional $47,222,222.

Your home state is not alone. Posted here is a similar list from the state of Ohio showing the names of 117 charter schools (40 percent) that received CSP funds between 2006-2014 that also never opened or are now closed. The total of CSP awards to those schools is $35,926,693. Please note that in all of these states, far more charter schools have failed than just those that received federal SEA funds. In the case of Ohio, the list of closed charters (293) is nearly equal to the number of schools that are presently open (310).

Louisiana charter schools received disproportionately large grants, and yet almost half failed. One hundred ten charter schools received funding through the CSP SEA program. Fifty-one (46 percent) are not in operation. You can find that list here. Because Louisiana does not publish a list of closed charters on its website, we compared each grant recipient to the list of charter schools in the state. Unfortunately, it was not possible to determine which had never opened at all. We do know that grants were very large — one closed school received $1,3 million from the federal grant program before folding. The total amount given to the 52 charters that failed was $23,819,839.

In California, 297 charters (38 percent) that received grant funds through the CSP SEA program during those six years closed or never opened. You can find the list of those schools here. This represents $103,467,332 of waste. Finally, here you will find a list of 184 Florida schools (36.6 percent) that received CSP grants that never opened or closed. $34,781,736 federal tax dollars were given to those schools.

Let’s recap with the facts. During an eight-year time period (2006-2014), huge multi-million dollar grants were awarded to 38 states plus the District of Columbia through the SEA program. In five states alone (Michigan, Ohio, Louisiana, California and Florida) 762 recipient schools either shut down or never opened, resulting in over 200 million dollars in wasted tax dollars.

In light of the small sample of states and program years (eight years in the program’s 24-year history) it is abundantly clear that our report’s estimate of 1000 defunct recipient schools is an underestimation.

Finally, given the Department’s claim that it spent over $3.3 billion between 1995-2015 alone (see slide 2 here) with failure rates for charters well exceeding 33 percent, one billion dollars is a reasonable estimation of overall waste. The total may be more since hundreds of millions have been disbursed since 2015.

In the coming weeks, we will continue the process of identifying all of the closed and “ghost” schools in every state, posting the names of those schools and issuing state reports. We hope that you will work with us to identify the charter schools that received federal funds prior to 2006 and after 2014.

This is a serious problem that should deeply concern the U.S. Department of Education. We hope you will join us in calling for a moratorium on any new funding until the department has reorganized and strengthened its oversight of the federal charter schools program.