(Update: Adding reaction from charter supporters)

Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts running for her party’s presidential nomination, struck a deep nerve with charter school supporters when she released her plan for pre-K-12 education and called for a freeze on federal funds for new charters. Now they are targeting her.

Last week, Warren spelled out a detailed plan that would spend hundreds of billions of dollars to improve public schools from prekindergarten through 12th grade, saying she would pay for it by taxing America’s wealthiest people.

She calls for, among other things, quadrupling federal Title I funding for schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, which would add $450 billion over the next 10 years — and change the way that funding is implemented so that the neediest students benefit. The plan would also fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act at the level the federal government originally promised — 40 percent of the total cost of educating students with disabilities.

But this is what set off supporters of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated: She said she would end federal investment in charter school expansion, ban for-profit charter schools and ensure existing charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability requirements as that of traditional public school districts. Warren also said she wants to ensure that only school districts can authorize the opening of charter schools.

She wasn’t the only Democratic presidential candidate to call for an end to federal funding for new charter schools; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did the same thing. But Warren has risen to the top of a number of polls, and she is now a prime target for critics of her proposals.

A day after Warren’s announcement, the pro-charter Center for Education Reform issued a release attacking her, saying in part: “This week is seeing Elizabeth Warren’s education stances go from disastrous to downright awful. Yesterday she released a plan filled with failed policies of the past that puts narrow special interests over parents’ rights and student’s opportunities to succeed.”

In the following post, public school advocate Carol Burris argues that charter schools and supportive organizations, many of which have received funding from the federal Charter Schools Program over a number of years, have a clear interest in making sure the federal Charter Schools Program is not shut down.

Burris is executive director of the advocacy group Network for Public Education and a former award-winning principal in New York. She has been chronicling the charter school movement and the standardized-test-based accountability movement on this blog for years.

She is also a co-author of the 2019 report “Asleep at the Wheel,” which detailed how up to $1 billion in federal funds has 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 was cited by a U.S. lawmaker in a hearing with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

By Carol Burris

The unveiling of Elizabeth Warren’s education plan resulted in a flurry of emails, tweets and blogs all focused on one small part of the plan — shutting down the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program. Most of the biggest objectors were those charter organizations that enjoy a stream of federal funding, with some having received hundreds of millions from a program whose original mission has gone astray.

It is not surprising that the alarm bells went off in the charter school establishment. Warren is now the second of the three leading contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president who have promised to shut down the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) called for a moratorium on the same program in his education platform, eliciting the same outrage from many of the same players.

Below is a sample of some of the recent emails, followed by a discussion of the benefit that each organization received.

First, a fundraising email for the Charter PAC went out from Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools:

From: Nina Rees
Sent: Monday, October 21, 2019 7:18 PM
Subject: Warren Proposes to Stop Federal Funding for Charter Schools
Dear Friends --
Today Presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren called to end federal funding for the expansion of
charter schools.
But we know that 5 million more families would choose a charter school if one could open near them.
Senator Warren’s plan to starve charter schools of funding would destroy the dreams of a quality education
for the families who need it most. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools responded sharply.
However, to protect as well as grow the Charter Schools Program, we must deploy all the tools available to us.
Please contribute to the Charter Schools Action PAC today. A strong Charter Schools PAC helps reinforce our
mission to candidates that need to know the impact of Senator Warren’s plan.
I’m writing today to ask for your help. Give today and share with 5 of your friends who support charter schools.
Thank you

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which had an income of nearly $13 million in 2017, has a vested interest in the continuance of the Charter Schools Program.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education, under Secretary Betsy DeVos, awarded it a $2,385,960 grant. That is because a new funding stream was established that year, the National Dissemination Grants Program. The new grant program does not fund charter schools, but rather organizations such as the national alliance. Given the size of its budget, that award provides a substantial inflow of cash.

Since 2010, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has spent $2,621,999 lobbying Congress and the White House for funding for charter schools, with much of that lobbying being directed at the expansion of the federal Charter Schools Program, legislative records show.

[Asked to comment, Rees said in an email: “Charter Schools Action PAC, a voluntary organization of charter school supporters, responded to the Warren campaign’s direct assault on charter schools and the contribution they are making to high quality education for all kids. When our schools, students, and families are attacked our supporters have no choice but to respond on behalf of all families who want high quality educational options for their kids.”]

Rees’s email was then shortly followed by another from the CEO of IDEA Charter Schools, Tom Torkelson, who forwarded Rees’s email to the same listserv with this note:

I hope you saw Nina's note below. Senator Warren has proposed to cut the entire charter schools federal program. We need your help today [gmail.us4.list-manage.com]; don't wait to support our efforts.
Tom Torkelson
Former Classroom Teacher and Charter School Founder

Torkelson, the CEO of the IDEA charter chain has an even greater vested interest in the preservation of the Federal Charter Schools Program. IDEA Charter Schools has received $225,000,000 from the Charter Schools Program since 2010. In 2018, IDEA had nearly $900 million in assets. That year, Torkelson earned over $550,000 from the charter chain and its related organization, public tax records show.

[A spokesman for IDEA said in an email: "As the Founder of IDEA Public Schools, Tom Torkelson has dedicated the last two decades to developing high-quality public schools that serve students from low-income backgrounds. Thanks, in part, to the federal Charter Schools Program, IDEA Public Schools has been able to expand in communities where the need is greatest, in partnership with teachers, students, and families.... We’re glad to see our founder stand up to defend schools that give students from all backgrounds the chance to go to a school that works for them.]

Just to make sure everyone on the listserv got the message and gave to the political action committee, Richard Barth of the KIPP charter chain forwarded the same email again.

Barth wrote:

Friends, We can’t let Senator Warren’s plan of cutting charter school funding become reality. Join us today and help all kids achieve their dreams. Richard.
Richard Barth
KIPP Foundation

The KIPP charter chain received $218,457,063 in grants from the Charter Schools program since 2010.

[A KIPP spokesman said in an email: Richard Barth is on the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools PAC. He sent the email on behalf of that organization, not on behalf of the KIPP Foundation. It is not uncommon for organizations like the PAC to ask for support when they are faced with important threats to their mission. The Charter School Program has been a critical and effective tool in creating opportunities for educationally underserved children. We are proud of our CEO for continuing to fight for black and brown families to have access to a quality education.]

That is nearly a half-billion dollars going to two of the most well-endowed charter chains in the nation — and that does not include the millions more that their individual schools received prior to the establishment of the Charter Management Organization grant program.

No one should be surprised that progressive candidates are taking on the Charter Schools Program. Sanders and Warren have been outspoken critics of billionaires and Wall Street driving public policy, and both of those groups have driven charter policies for years.

The federal Charter Schools Program, which began modestly in 1995, has turned into a massive giveaway with multiple examples of waste and the enabling of fraud. More than $4.1 billion in public funding has gone to start, replicate and expand charter schools with millions more now going to other ancillary programs for dissemination and facilities funding.

In Warren’s home state of Massachusetts, 74 charter schools were awarded CSP grants between 2006-2014. Fifteen never even opened and eight shut down or were shut down — hardly a resounding success. That represents over $4.6 million in federal funds going to charter “experiments” that failed.

Last March, the Network for Public Education issued our report, “Asleep at the Wheel,” that exposed the enormous waste the program has generated by freely given tax dollars to charter school operators who never actually open a proposed school, and to operators whose charter schools open and close.

Next year we will issue a follow-up report that will provide detailed documentation of where wasted funding went, including how funds make their way to charters run by for-profit organizations as well as to operators who would use that money to start charters while engaging in mismanagement and unlawful profiteering.

Under DeVos, the Charter Schools Program is moving in a direction that accelerates school privatization and the flow of public funds into private hands. Since DeVos has been in charge, six of the 20 grants from the State Entities program — totaling $116,571,458 — have gone not to state government agencies, but to private agencies to distribute school start-up grants. In exchange, these agencies get to keep 10 percent of the grants to administer the grants and supply services.

As these private agencies receive grants that have a funding stream for their organization attached, it is likely that the waste associated with the previous grants to state education agencies will get worse.

As mentioned earlier, the new National Dissemination Grants Program, has also been a financial windfall for charter advocacy groups. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools was not alone in receiving a grant. Grants to private organizations totaled $16 million in 2018, federal records show. Joining the National Alliance were the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the California Charter Schools Association, which has also received big funding from billionaires of that state.

The CSP program is now moving in a direction aligned with the philosophy of DeVos — the private sector is preferred over the public sector when it comes to the schooling, and the management of schooling, of America’s children.

Some of the teacher strikes around the country that started in early 2018 — including those in West Virginia and California — focused on more than teacher salaries and benefits. West Virginia teachers walked out to stop the encroachment of privatization in the form of vouchers and charters in their state. In both the cities of Los Angeles and Oakland, calls to stop the spread of charters were heard from the picket lines and became part of negotiations.

The “competition” between the charter and public school sector was supposed to be the tide that would lift all boats. Instead, some public school systems are unable to stay afloat as that tide pulls public resources from their schools.

In 1995, New Hampshire enacted legislation permitting charter schools. It received two modest CSP grants in 2003 and 2010, together totaling about $18 million. In the 25 years since charters have been allowed, 33 charters opened, five of which have closed due to lack of enrollment and financial insolvency. The state does not allow for-profit organizations to run schools, and as of now, there are no charter chains in the state.

Although 28 charter schools is a small number, those charters are embedded in a public school system of only 448 public schools. Nevertheless, in 2019, DeVos gave the state a whopping $46 million as a CSP federal grant. In addition to providing support for existing schools, the intent of the grant is to both expand existing schools and create 27 charter schools in the five years of the grant — doubling the number of charters in that tiny state.

Frank Edelblut, the governor-appointed commissioner of education in New Hampshire who applauded receipt of the grant, home-schooled his seven children. He is a strong supporter of charter schools and vouchers (which use public founds for private and religious school education) — and like DeVos, has no experience in public education.

“Asleep at the Wheel” detailed up to $1 billion in federal funds that were wasted on charter schools that never opened, or opened and then closed because of mismanagement and other reasons, and that may be an underestimate. Sanders and Warren have now stood up to the charter industry, questioning a program that they say been used as a lever to sponsor unfettered charter school growth and private profits while undermining democratically governed public schools.