Jan Resseger reviews a major report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General, which condemns the Department’s repeated failure to oversee the spending of federal. charter school funding.

The blame here falls not on Betsy DeVos, but on her predecessor, Arne Duncan, who was so eager to stimulate the creation of new charter schools that he failed to monitor those already opened with federal funds.

She writes:

“The report condemns a trend of poor oversight: This is the third major report in which the Department of Education’s OIG has documented poor management of federal dollars flowing to charter schools. Reports from the Department of Education’s OIG in 2012 and 2016 also disparaged Duncan’s charter school oversight. It is not likely, however, that Betsy DeVos, a libertarian, will improve the Department’s regulatory role.

“The new 2018, OIG report examines whether the U.S. Department of Education has a process for adequately monitoring the management of federal dollars and the management of student records and data when charter schools are closed. OIG examined charter school closures in three states between 2011 and 2015. Defining privately operated charter schools as public schools for the purpose of this report, the OIG notes that in the 2015-2016 school year, there were 98,277 public schools across the United States, among which 6,855 were charter schools. Between 2011 and 2015, 977 of the charter schools closed. OIG studied charter school closures in three states: Arizona, which had the highest number of closed charter schools authorized by the same authorizer; California, which had more charter schools than any other state and more students enrolled in charter schools; and Louisiana, which had the highest ratio of charter school closures relative to the number of charter schools in the state. In its 2018 report, OIG examines the procedures used in 89 of the closed charter schools—45 in Arizona, 31 in California, and 13 in Louisiana. OIG explains: “The purpose of the audit (is) to determine whether the U.S. Department of Education has effective oversight of the programs provided to charter schools….”

“The OIG begins its report by reassuring us—in oxymoronic language— that, “Charter schools are nonsectarian, publicly funded schools of choice that are intended to be held accountable for their academic and financial performance in return for reduced governmental regulation.” Maybe the myth that charters can be held accountable without accountability explains why the Department of Education hasn’t done so well with with preventing the kind of problems the report describes.

“The 2018, OIG report charges that the Department of Education has not provided adequate guidance to enable states and local school districts to comply with the federal laws and regulations they must follow to protect Title I, IDEA and Charter Schools Program dollars when charter schools are shut down. Neither Arizona, California, nor Louisiana had developed required procedures for tracking how the assets of charter schools were disposed after the schools were closed. The report notes that in September of 2015, the Department of Education sent a letter to state departments of education to remind them “of their role in helping to ensure that Federal funds received by charter schools are used for intended and appropriate purposes.” OIG explains, however, that, “The Dear Colleague Letter did not specifically discuss charter school closures.” Neither has the Department adequately monitored states’ charter school closure processes. “The Title I, IDEA, and CSP program offices did not incorporate a review of charter school closure procedures into their State Education Agency monitoring tools.”

“The 2018, OIG report continues: “During our audit period, the Department did not consider charter school closures to be a risk to Federal funds; therefore, the Title I, IDEA, and CSP program offices did not prioritize providing guidance to State Education Agencies on how to manage the charter school closure process….” “Without adequate Department guidance provided to the State Education Agencies and sufficient State Education Agency and authorizer oversight and monitoring of charter school closure processes, the risk of significant fraud, waste, and abuse of Federal programs’ funds is high. The growing number of charter schools, from 1,993 in School Year 2000-2001 to 6,855 in School Year 2015-2016, and the number of charter schools that closed, ranging from 72 in School Year 2000-2001 to 308 in School Year 2014-2015, require the Department’s program offices to develop and implement a modified approach to overseeing the State Education Agencies.””

Finally: “We found there was no assurance that for the sampled closed charter schools (1) Federal funds were properly closed within the required period, (2) assets aquired with Federal funds were properly disposed of, and (3) the students’ personally identifiable information was properly protected and maintained.”

Unfortunately, Kathleen S. Tighe, the Inspector General of the Department of Education, is retiring next month, and her replacement will be named by the president, subject to Senate confirmation. The current deputy IG Sandra Bruce will take over until a permanent IG is nominated and confirmed.

Given the track record of the Trump administration in politicizing every facet of the federal government, this change may be the end of honest inquiry about charter school oversight.