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Educators, Advocates, and Watchdogs Respond to Announcement of Charter Grant Awardees

– Experts urge caution as Department of Education awards $245 million despite scathing IG report

– Program is the single largest source of public funding for creating and expanding charter schools

Washington, D.C. - September 29, 2016 -

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García provided the following reaction to the recent U.S. Department of Education (ED) announcement of awards to eight states and 15 charter operators totaling $245 million for the 2016 Charter School Program (CSP) grant cycle, and millions more in recommended funding in the coming years:

“All students deserve schools that are held to the same high stands of accountability, transparency, and equity as traditional public schools,” said Eskelsen García. “According to the Department of Education’s own Inspector General, the State Education Agency grant program (which is one part of the overall CSP grant program) is not ensuring those standards are met, despite distributing more than $3.3 billion in taxpayer dollars. The charter industry needs new rules for financial transparency, including regular audits and published budgets, and new standards for equal opportunity, including admissions and discipline. This is essential to ensure all schools are accountable for how they serve students, taxpayers, and communities.”

ED announced yesterday that California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington state will receive grants in varying amounts up to $70 million. CSP grants are the single largest source of funding for creating and expanding charter schools in the U.S. In 2012, ED’s Office of the Inspector General reported that among states it audited, “none monitored authorizing agencies responsible for granting charter school licenses” and that “[State education agencies] have limited ability to ensure authorizers were approving and granting charters to quality charter schools and providing adequate monitoring to them after they opened.” To date, these deficiencies have not been corrected.

Even as a wealth of research shows a shocking absence of oversight and accountability in the charter sector, voters this November will weigh the radical expansion of charter schools in Massachusetts, which was awarded as much as $15.8 million according to ED’s announcement, and also in Georgia, which was awarded as much as $46.4 million under the latest round of grants.

Several states and operators receiving CSP grants in 2016 received grants in previous years, and research has found a shocking lack of accountability and transparency in how those funds have been used. For example:

  • Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) received a grant of as much as $9 million in the latest round of awards despite a recent report warning that DSST may have paid up to $50 million over a four year period to a for-profit management company owned by two DSST board of directors.
  • Louisiana will receive a grant that could reach nearly $8 million. A recent study reported that Louisiana charter schools “have experienced millions in known losses from fraud and mismanagement so far,” and could have losses in the tens of millions of dollars each year. Since 2005, Louisiana has spent approximately $700 million on charter schools that currently have not exceeded a D or F rating.
  • California could receive nearly $50 million from the latest CSP grant and will receive more than $25 million in 2016 alone. California previously received an up to $254 million grant in 2010. A 2015 study reported that more than 200 charters have closed in California, nearly one out of every five that have opened, due to a range of issues including financial mismanagement, unsafe school conditions, and material violations of the law.  

In response to these and other reports regarding transparency and accountability in the charter sector, in 2015 the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) at Brown University released proposed standards and recommendations for oversight in charter schools based on conversations with educators, parents, students and community leaders. The report’s seven proposed standards and dozens of policy recommendations aim to ensure a level playing field between traditional public schools and public charter schools and that charters are fully transparent and accountable to the communities they serve.

“The federal government is the nation’s largest source of start-up funding for new charter schools. It should also be the most rigorous, when it comes to public access and accountability,” said AISR consultant Leigh Dingerson. “As the Department’s own inspector general has noted, we haven’t seen that level of rigor to date. Hopefully this round of grants will be accompanied by a new commitment to transparency and evaluation of the program’s impact on students, communities and school districts.”

In 2015, a report on the CSP program from the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) found that neither ED nor state agencies tracked which schools the federal education dollars went to, or how those schools preformed after receiving taxpayer funding. Even more shocking, CMD found that in many cases, schools received grants but ceased operation before ever holding a single day of classes.

"It's disappointing that the government continues to hand out hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to charter operators even though every month the amount of fraud and waste in charters funded by this program grows,” said CMD Executive Director Lisa Graves. “The failures in accountability within this program have done irreparable harm to our students.”

Other advocates and watchdogs also responded with hesitancy to the announcement of the awards.

“The point of the federal charter school grant program is to grow the number of charter schools,” said Kyle Serette, director of Education for the Center for Popular Democracy. “Today, there is no need for a federal charter growth stimulus given the large percentages of charter schools struggling to succeed, both academically and financially. States need to put in place the supports necessary to ensure charter school applications reflect the reality of charter school implementation. The new grants announced today will increase the stress on already overwhelmed charter school authorizers."

"We need stronger common sense protections to make sure these funds help children learn,” said Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, a watchdog and comprehensive resource center on outsourcing, responsible contracting and best practices for good government. “Without more transparency and oversight, we fear that too much of this funding will fall into a black hole."

Experts from the NEA and organizations quoted herein are available for interviews upon request.

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The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing nearly 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.

Richard Allen Smith, NEA Communications
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