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House Democrats seek cut in federal charter school funding, saying Education Department isn’t a ‘responsible steward of taxpayer dollars’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified last month before the House Education and Labor Committee. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

House Democrats are proposing a sweeping cut in federal funding for charter schools, saying they are “deeply concerned” that the U.S. Education Department “does not intend to be a responsible steward” of taxpayer dollars used to help the charter movement.

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday released its proposed 2020 budget for the Education Department and is seeking $75.9 billion. That is $11.9 billion more than President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are requesting, and $4.4 billion more than what was enacted in 2019. There are big boosts for Title 1 — a program intended to help children from low-income families — and special education.

The section on charter schools is seeking $400 million for the federal Charter Schools Program, which is $40 million less than what was given last year and $100 million less than Trump’s proposed budget. Trump and DeVos have said that expanding alternatives to traditional public school systems, including charter schools, is their top priority.

Whether Congress will approve this cut is unclear. But the proposal marks a change for Democrats, who for years have largely been as enthusiastic as Republicans about expanding charters.

Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars but operated by nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies with varying levels of oversight. Supporters say they are every bit as public as traditional districts, while critics say these schools are part of an effort to privatize public education.

The Obama administration was instrumental in driving the growth of charters, even including it as a goal for states in its $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative. But recently the charter movement has arrived at what appears to be an inflection point.

Many public school systems are complaining about losing significant funding to charters. Teacher strikes that began in 2018 and have continued this year throughout the country — including in Republican-led states — have helped change the debate about public education funding.

There's a backlash against charter schools

A 2018 report by the Education Department’s inspector general slammed the agency’s oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program and made recommendations for improvement that the House legislation says DeVos’s team has ignored. The agency was accused of the same thing in a 2016 inspector general report.

“The committee is deeply concerned that the department does not intend to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars when it comes to [Charter Schools Program] funding,” the legislation says.

The committee has included language that would direct the Education Department to implement the recommendations from the 2018 inspector general’s report within six months of the bill’s enactment and brief legislators on its plan within a month.

The legislation also says lawmakers are “concerned” about a recent report issued by the advocacy group the Network for Public Education, which says that as much as $1 billion in federal money was wasted on charter schools that never opened or that closed because of mismanagement and other issues from 2009 to 2016.

“Clearly, the tide is turning regarding charter schools,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, who co-wrote the report referred to in the legislation.

“This $100 million slash to the DeVos charter school budget proposal shows that Democrats are becoming increasingly skeptical of pushing money out the door to create new charter schools,” she said. “As equally important as the cut to funding is the demand for the department to heed the reports of the office of the inspector general, better supervise the states and to examine the for-profit virtual charter schools industry.”

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

Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the pro-charter advocacy group Center for Education Reform, acknowledged that sentiment on charters was changing in a new post on her organization’s website. She wrote that charters are indeed “under attack,” in a post titled “Who Is Killing Charter Schools?”

For Title 1, the committee is seeking $16.9 billion, an increase of $1 billion over the 2019 enacted level and Trump’s budget proposal. The committee is seeking $14.5 billion for special education — $1 billion above both the 2019 enacted level and Trump’s proposal.

And the bill would provide money for programs that Trump’s budget seeks to eliminate, including teacher professional-development grants, at $2.6 billion; student support and academic-enrichment grants, at $1.3 billion; and 21st Century Community Learning Centers, at $1.3 billion.

It also includes language directing DeVos “to issue guidance” clarifying that student support and academic funds cannot be used to arm teachers.

Here’s the language from the Appropriations Committee’s proposed legislation regarding charter schools:

Charter Schools Grants
The Committee recommends $400,000,000 for Charter School[s] Program (CSP) Grants, which is $40,000,000 below the fiscal year 2019 enacted level and $100,000,000 below the fiscal year 2020 budget request. The Committee recommends an allocation of funds within this program that aligns with ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act].
CSP awards grants to SEAs [State Education Agency] or, if a State’s SEA chooses not to participate, to charter school developers to support the development and initial implementation of public charter schools. State Facilities Incentive Grants and Credit Enhancement for Charter School Facilities awards help charter schools obtain adequate school facilities. These programs work in tandem to support the development and operation of charter schools.
The Committee is concerned by a recent report that between 2009 and 2016 as much as $1,000,000,000 of CSP funds have been wasted on schools that never opened or precipitously closed due to mismanagement. In particular, the Committee is concerned by the ED–OIG September 2018 report, ‘‘Nationwide Audit of Oversight of Closed Charter Schools,’’ which found that the Department did not provide effective oversight of processes performed by the States that receive CSP funding when their charter schools close. The Committee is deeply concerned that the Department does not intend to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars when it comes to CSP funding, as it has rejected the multiple ED–OIG audit recommendations. Therefore, the Committee directs the Department, within 180 days of the enactment of this Act, to implement all of the recommendations included in the September 2018 ED–OIG report and brief the Committees on Appropriations on plans for implementation within 30 days of enactment of this Act.
The Committee notes that ESSA requires the Department to conduct regular evaluations of State entity CSP grants. ESSA took critical steps toward strengthening oversight of charter schools by requiring State entities receiving grant funds to allocate not less than seven percent of funding received under the program to provide technical assistance to grantees to expand, open, and prepare for the operation of high-quality charter schools, including by increasing charter school and authorizer quality initiatives. ESSA reinforced that a vital part of being a high-quality charter school is ‘‘demonstrated success in increasing student academic achievement . . . for each of the subgroups of students, as defined in section 1111(c)(2) (20 U.S.C. 7221i).’’ ESSA also places responsibility on the State entity for ensuring that all charter schools receiving grants ‘‘meet the educational needs of their students, including children with disabilities.’’ The Committee directs the Department to include in their evaluation of State entity Charter School grant programs the extent to which State entities are utilizing this seven percent to ensure that charter schools receiving CSP grants are equipped to appropriately serve students with disabilities and, by extension, prepared to become high-quality charter schools. Further, the Committee directs the Department to include a summary of its findings in its fiscal year 2021 Congressional Budget Justification.
In addition, the Committee notes widespread findings of waste and abuse in the for-profit virtual charter school sector and directs the Department to provide the Committees on Appropriations, within 180 days of enactment of this Act, the amount of CSP funding this sector received between fiscal years 2014 through fiscal year 2019. In addition, the Department shall provide the total funding for all of the agency’s programs that goes to for-profit, virtual charter schools.