Striking teacher Estefana Ramos protests with parents and supporters outside Manzanita Community School in Oakland, Calif., in February. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
Reporter

I have published some posts recently about a report issued by a public education advocacy group about waste in the U.S. Education Department’s Charter Schools Program, which has provided funding for charters to open and expand since the mid-1990s. Charter supporters have taken issue with the report’s findings.

The report, titled “Asleep at the Wheel,” detailed how up to $1 billion in federal funds have been wasted on charter schools that never opened, or opened and then closed because of mismanagement and other reasons. Published by the Network for Public Education, the report said the department — in both Republican and Democratic administrations — has not adequately monitored the use of its grants to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

In March I published a post about the report, which was then cited by Democratic legislators in Congress during a hearing where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave testimony about her department’s 2020 budget proposal. In June, one of the co-authors of the report, Carol Burris, wrote another piece on this blog with new findings, saying that the estimate of up to $1 billion of waste in the program may have been too low.

A few days after that piece appeared on this blog, a pro-charter education journal called EducationNext, published by Harvard University’s Kennedy School, published on its website a critique of “Asleep at the Wheel” and a defense of the federal Charter Schools Program.

That critique questioned the findings of the Network for Public Education report, saying, among other things, that there was not enough documentation, that the data sources were a “hodgepodge” and that the data was “misused to support a conclusion that is then advanced unwittingly by credulous media outlets.”

In the post below, Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education and a former award-winning principal in New York, addresses that criticism. She points out what she says are omissions and inaccuracies in the critique, while agreeing that the report should have provided more documentation of its findings. She said her organization is posting new documentation and other data on its website.

Charter schools have been a contentious feature in the school choice movement for years. Supporters say that these schools offer choices for families who want alternatives to troubled schools in traditional systems and that they often get better results than traditional schools in the same neighborhoods. Opponents say that charters are part of an effort to privatize public education, that there is little public accountability over many of them and that they drain resources from traditional districts where the vast majority of children attend school.

For years, Republican and Democratic presidents have supported these schools, which are sometimes operated by for-profit companies. But recently, many Democrats have started to voice concern about them for several reasons.

After some 30 years, it is clear that charters are not the panacea to all that ails traditional public schools — as they were initially touted — and that in some places they take resources away from publicly funded districts. The NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement have called for a moratorium on new charters. There are some civil rights groups that support charters, showing a split in that community over these schools.

About 6 percent of U.S. schoolchildren attend charter schools, with 44 states plus the District, Guam and Puerto Rico having laws permitting them. Some states have only a few charters, while others have many. California has the most charter schools and the most charter students; in Los Angeles, 20 percent of children attend such schools.

Many people in the charter movement have been reluctant to address some of the documented waste and fraud in the sector, which have been revealed in numerous media publications.

For example, the Arizona Republic in February won the prestigious George Polk Award for Education Reporting for its investigation of the state’s charter schools, which, the newspaper said, “revealed how the state’s school funding system and permissive legal structure allow charter-school operators to make huge profits off public education dollars.”

Not long after that, the Los Angeles Times published two articles identifying problems with California’s lax charter school accountability laws. One article’s headline said, “Small districts reap big profits by approving charter schools with little oversight”; the other, “Essential California: How a couple worked charter school regulations to make millions.” In May, San Diego prosecutors indicted 11 people in what they described as a charter scam that defrauded California of up to $80 million in education funds.

Here is the piece by Burris, who has been writing for years about problems in the charter school sector.

By Carol Burris

Both the reputation of and enthusiasm for charter schools are on the decline. Although charter advocates and the press often blame teacher unions for the sector’s fall from grace, charter schools have themselves, in great part, to blame. Charter advocacy organizations such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) have demonstrated an unwillingness to address the sector’s weaknesses, and that unwillingness may be the ultimate undoing of the charter movement itself.

A clear example is their defense of the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program, penned as a critique of the Network for Public Education’s report “Asleep at the Wheel.”

That critique, published by EducationNext, begins by attacking the messenger, specifically, by identifying the Network for Public Education as a “union-funded” organization. The claim that we are funded by unions is linked to a 2015 post by Rishawn Biddle claiming that Voices for Education, the former fiscal sponsor of the Network for Public Education, received a $25,000 grant from the National Education Association (NEA). The money was used by Voices to provide scholarships to bring speakers and attendees to the NPE conference.

It is disappointing, but predictable, that NAPCS would use a small grant given to a fiscal sponsor five years ago to imply that our organization, which prides itself on its independence, was union controlled. The charter lobby has for years strategically painted all opposition to charter schools as originating with the two big teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Although one might expect the department to defend its own practices, NAPCS has a vested interest in coming to its defense. In 2018 alone, the organization spent $112,714 lobbying the department, Congress and the White House, primarily for funding for the Charter Schools Program that it is now defending. In that same year, those lobbying efforts also provided substantial lobbying income for NAPCS — bringing in $238,500 from sources unknown. NAPCS has a fiscal vested interest in the continuance of the program.

The focus of the NAPCS critique of the Network for Public Education’s report, however, is our claim that it is possible that up to $1 billion in federal funds have been wasted on charters that never opened or that closed.

First, let’s talk about what the report actually says. We are clear, despite the claim of NAPCS, that the estimate of $1 billion is based on all years of CSP funding. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2015 report titled “Charter Schools Program Overview,” which the critique erroneously states is an analysis not available to the public, the Charter Schools Program “awarded $3.1 billion for the creation of charter schools since its inception since 1995.” If we add that sum to NAPCS’s own estimate of an additional $700 million spent since 2015, the total spent on the program to open and expand charter schools since its inception is $4.1 billion.

Even if 1 in 4 grantees failed, and we determined that the proportion is much higher, the amount spent on never existing or closed charter schools would be more than $1 billion. It is also clear that many schools that did not open did receive funding. The department’s data set shows a pattern of smaller awards to schools that we determined never opened. Both the analysis report and the data set are linked in our report[1].

How then does NAPCS come up with their claim that it is impossible that no more than $632 million (an astounding sum in itself) could have been wasted? In their attempt to prove $1 billion impossible, the NAPCS ignored the approximately $1.6 billion spent during the first 10 years of the program. Rather, it uses what we now know was our underestimation of grantee failures during only six years of a 24-year old program as a baseline, while adding subsequent, but not prior, funding.

Page 8 of the “Charter Schools Program Overview” shows that spending by year from the program’s beginning in 1995 to 2015. NAPCS must be aware of the report’s existence. They link to a department page that in turn links to the overview in their critique.

I do agree with the criticism by NAPCS that we did not provide sufficient documentation in the report and relied too much on estimation, as reasonable and informed as our estimations were. That is why the Network for Public Education is painstakingly going through the entire CSP data set of subgrantees from 2006 to 2014 to determine if the awardees ever opened or if they closed. That data set also includes charter schools opened in 2001 that were still open in 2006, but it does not include any closed schools that received awards between 2001 and 2005.

So far, we have reviewed sub-grantee awards to charter schools in 15 states. For each of those states, we have published lists of defunct charter schools along with their grants. We have totaled, for those 15 states alone, $326,518,634 granted to more than 1,200 charter schools that are not in operation. Clearly our estimate of $198 million for the entire list was a conservative underestimation of funds wasted on defunct schools. For those 15 states, the proportion of never-existing or shuttered charter schools is 40 percent.

We will continue posting our lists, state by state, here. The department’s decision to exclude charter schools that shut down or never opened from their data set before 2001 and to not publish a data set after 2014 prevents the full disclosure of grants to defunct schools. So while we can estimate for those years (and our estimate of 25 percent is conservative), until the full data set is published, we cannot determine a definitive amount. Based on what we (and the readers) can observe, $1 billion is a conservative estimate.

Beyond its flawed calculation, the philosophy expressed in the critique is deeply disturbing. NACPS sees charter closures not as a problem but as proof of the sector’s superiority.

In its critique, NACPS says that charter school closures should be applauded as an accountability feature of what it terms the charter school “experiment.” It argues that if students do poorly, then the school should be closed. However, as this list of school closures in Michigan shows, the majority of charters shut down for a variety of reasons beyond lack of academic performance. Many shut down because they are financially unstable, often the result of mismanagement and/or fraud. Others shut down due to their inability to attract students. Still others lose their authorizers.

The simple fact is that due to programs like CSP that provide free-flowing funds, many schools open that never should open at all. What may be the largest case of fraud in the history of charter schools (up to $80 million) is a case in point. The alleged mastermind, Sean McManus, began his operation as the CEO of a charter chain that received $2,825,000 from a CSP subgrant to California.

Such problems are not acknowledged by the NAPCS. For example, in its critique of our report it attributes the closure of University Yes Academy Charter High School to a decision to “scale back,” while ignoring our report’s documentation that the school had five principals in three years, could not account for $300,000 in Title I funds and then signed a contract with a management company run by the same person that ran their prior CMO, who then closed the high school one week before opening. That is not education. That is chaos.

Charter school families do not cheer “hooray for accountability” when their school closes. Those who see school closures as a victory miss the importance of a school and school community in the life of a child.

It is probable that a small minority of schools on our list of closed charters may, in fact, be functioning. It is also probable that there are closed schools we missed. NAPCS staff accurately describes the difficulty in tracking charter schools due to mergers, authorizer switches, shedding of grade levels, name changes and changes in physical location. Indeed, that is part of the churn and instability of the sector.

NAPCS claims in the critique to have the best list of all charters that were ever opened and all charters that are closed. If NAPCS would make those lists available to the public, we would be happy to check the list for accuracy and then update our lists as needed. The publication of all sub-grants by the U.S. Department of Education with awards given from the mid-1990s to the present, including closed schools, would also provide even more transparency and accountability for spending by the program and let all get a better handle on where $4.1 billion has gone.

Beyond faulty calculations that either deliberately or incompetently leave out a decade of funding, NAPCS also misrepresents our main criticism of the review process that documents the gap between what schools say on their application and the reality of the school. No matter how thick the manual, if reviewers are prevented from seeking outside verification of school claims, there is no way that false statements can be identified. Our report provides examples of false and misleading claims made by applicants, with links to the applications themselves.

The critique is also silent on our documentation of grant recipients that have been identified by the California and Arizona ACLU as having discriminatory admissions policies and practices, charter schools whose student populations are dramatically different than the district in which they are housed, and grant recipient schools that have been involved in scandal.

Rather than continue a point-by-point rebuttal that would bore readers to tears, I suggest that readers read our report for themselves. Despite the NAPCS claim that the report lacks documentation, there are 106 citations, many to U.S. Department of Education documents and Office of Inspector General audits that are a fascinating read.

[1] Tikun Olam is not listed in the data set due to the efforts of New Jersey state Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., who stopped the $200,000 earmarked for planning in the $600,000 grant the school was using as leverage to get state approval after being turned down multiple times. Darcie Cimarusti, mentioned in the news report, provided us with details and email documentation. She is an employee of the Network for Public Education.