U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks during a town hall meeting as President Barack Obama looks on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP photo/Charlie Neibergall)

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been called the most powerful education secretary for a reason.

He has led a department that has been criticized for being “a national school board” because of its micromanaging states on some key education issues. Duncan talks a lot about “accountability” and the importance of making sure that schools are doing right by kids. When the department began its $4.3 billion Race to the Top funding competition among states, it made clear what its priorities for applications were, and when it offered waivers to states from the most onerous parts of No Child Left Behind, there were detailed strings attached. (And when Washington did not evaluate teachers by standardized test scores as the department wanted, it yanked the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver).

But when it comes to its support of charter schools, the department hasn’t been doing all that much to manage the more than $3 billion it has given to charter networks and state education departments for the purposes of creating and expanding existing charters. And it just this week announced that it was awarding $157 million in new grants for charters.

State Educational Agency Grantees:

Grantee Name FY 2015 Funding Total Recommended Funding
Arizona Department of Education $15,709,697 $23,624,997
Colorado Department of Education $18,179,999 $36,359,999
Illinois Department of Education $21,143,113 $42,286,226
Office of the State Superintendent of Education (District of Columbia) $10,083,900 $20,167,800
Ohio Department of Education $32,556,801 $71,058,319
Oregon Department of Education $4,180,000 $8,790,931
Nevada Department of Education $7,896,989 $16,481,251
South Carolina Department of Education $15,218,801 $30,437,602
Total $124,969,300 $249,207,125

Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools Grantees:

Grantee Name State FY 2015 Funding Total Recommended Funding
Achievement First, Inc. CT $3,226,599 $8,453,100
Across the Bridge Foundation CA $827,128 $241,6000
Baltimore Curriculum Project MD $217,359 $282,720
Einstein Group, Inc. LA $2,189,999 $5,000,000
Lawndale Educational and Regional Network IL $3,202,879 $6,547,950
Mastery Charter High School PA $3,764,836 $9,587,266
Noble Network of Charter Schools IL $1,564,999 $8,412,500
RePublic Schools TN $3,799,332 $9,599,999
Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. NY $3,794,396 $13,440,000
UP Education Network, Inc. MA $2,167,984 $4,335,971
Uplift Education TX $4,484,112 $10,330,905
West Denver Prep DBA STRIVE Preparatory Schools CO $3,168,894 $6,774,087
Total   $32,408,517 $85,180,498

The largest recipient — getting $32.5 million this year with a recommended multi-year total of $71 million — is the Ohio Department of Education, which runs a charter school program that is among the most troubled in the country.

How troubled? A June story in the Akron Beacon Journal noted that  “since 2001, state auditors have uncovered $27.3 million improperly spent by charter schools, many run by for-profit companies, enrolling thousands of children and producing academic results that rival the worst in the nation.” It also said: “No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.” A Sept. 19 Beacon Journal story had this headline: “Blame and ignorance follow 200th charter school flop in Ohio.”

[Troubled Ohio charter schools have become a joke — literally]

Education Department officials say that they only give grants to high-performing charter school operators but that they don’t have a lot of control over the states. On a press call about the new grants on Monday, Duncan said:

“It’s so important that from the academic side and the fiscal side that [charter school] authorizers and states hold charters accountable. At the federal level, we don’t have a whole lot of leverage. But we can really challenge states.”

And how are they challenging states? Along with the grants, the department is sending a “Dear Colleague” letter with “suggested” areas of state involvement with charter authorizers and operators. You can see it in full below.

During the press call, a reporter asked why any money was going to Ohio for its charter sector. Duncan remained silent. Department Assistant Deputy Secretary Nadya Dabby responded:

“I think Ohio has pretty good mechanisms in place to improve quality and oversight. … We believe Ohio has put a series of practices in place although there’s always room to grow.”

Yes, there is always room to grow, but Ohio’s legislature has failed to put good mechanisms in place to improve quality and oversight. It was supposed to earlier this year, but didn’t manage to get it done.

[Ohio’s effort to reform its ridiculed charter schools is a big fail]

And there’s more: According to the Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio’s winning charter grant application was put together with the help of David Hansen, who ran the school choice and charter school programs in the Ohio Department of Education until he was forced to resign in July after it was discovered that he had secretly given help to some charter schools to make them look better in state evaluations.

My Post colleague Lyndsey Layton noted in this story about the new grants that the federal government doesn’t carefully monitor how charter schools use federal dollars, nor has it studied the academic performance of the schools. Layton noted a 2012 report by the Education Department’s inspector general that reviewed the very program through which Duncan just awarded $157 million and detailed significant deficiencies in how the department handled federal grants to charter schools between 2008 and 2011. The department says it acted on the inspector general’s recommendations.

But how carefully does the department actually monitor its grantees?

Duncan’s press secretary, Dorie Nolt, said in an e-mail that charter program grantees are required to submit annual performance reports on their projects:

As part of the review, states are required to submit a list of all active subgrants, including dates of awards, amount of funding provided, authorizer, CMO/EMO affiliation, and NCES code for open schools. (These data are the basis for the CSP database ED is working to release.) These reports must be submitted for the grantee to receive continuation funding and to continue with their project activities. Depending on grantee progress or contextual changes, ED may adjust future funding amounts. For the 2010 state grantees, for example, ED’s final grant payments were, on average, $10M less than the original grant amount. Those “savings” are repurposed to support other CSP grants. In addition, ED conducts an annual risk assessment of grantees, including audit data….

…. Onsite grantee monitoring. Each grantee receives onsite monitoring at least once during their grant project. This monitoring looks at all aspects of grantee compliance and performance, and includes visits to some subgrantees. In the event of any findings from these reviews, grantees are notified about the issues and are required to make changes in order to continue receiving federal funds.

She also noted that the Charter School Program’s technical assistance contractor facilitated a webinar for CSP grantees that discusses charter school closures and how to handle them, as well as another webinar designed to handle “issues regarding financial management and fiscal controls for their CSP grant funds.”

But such monitoring pales in comparison to the heavy-duty monitoring the department has done on its Race to the Top grants and state proposals for NCLB waivers.

According to a report released several months ago by the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy:

CMD’s review of appropriations reveals that the federal government has spent a staggering sum, $3.3 billion, of taxpayer money creating and expanding the charter school industry over the past two decades, but it has done so without requiring the most basic transparency in who ultimately receives the funds and what those tax dollars are being used for, especially in contrast to the public information about truly public schools.

Even more tellingly, other documents reveal that ED has knowingly awarded charter grants to states with no statutory oversight of charter authorizers and schools as the grant applications are evaluated based on how much “flexibility” from state laws charter schools enjoy.

The center also said in this post that Colorado, which wound up receiving a grant renewal from the Education Department this week, initially won a $46 million grant in 2010 “thanks in no small part to the lax ‘hiring and firing’ rules and the lack of certification requirements for charter school teachers — a reviewer contracted by the U.S. Department of Education to score the application noted.

In July, the Center for Media and Democracy reported that according to a PowerPoint presentation it uncovered:

the watchdogs at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General are currently conducting major nationwide probes into the lack of accountability and oversight within the Charter School Program. One of these audits focuses on where federal grants end up when charter schools are forced to close. A spokesperson for OIG confirmed to CMD that these investigations are ongoing.

Here’s the PowerPoint:

Here’s the Education Department’s “Dear Colleague” letter: