Jeff Bryant has kept tabs on Betsy DeVos, who is quietly turning the pandemic into an opportunity to advance her personal agenda of privatizing public schools. She is not going to let this massive national crisis and tragedy go to waste. She came to her position determined to “advance God’s Kingdom” and what better time to do that than now, as the nation is staggering with sickness and death?

Please open the article to see the many links for documentation and to read it to the end. Follow the money. Apparently “God’s Kingdom” needs as much public money as possible, and Betsy DeVos is shoveling it out the door as fast as she can to her friends in the education industry.

Jeff Bryant writes:

COVID-19 has shuttered public schools across the nation, state governments are threatening to slash education budgets due to the economic collapse caused by the outbreak, and emergency aid provided by the federal government is far short of what is needed, according to a broad coalition of education groups, but the charter school industry may benefit from its unique status to seek public funding from multiple sources and expand these schools into many more communities traumatized by the pandemic and financial fallout.

As school districts reported huge problems with converting classroom learning into online instruction delivered to students’ homes, often due to lack of funding for internet-capable devices and Wi-Fi hotspots, charter school proponents spread the news of how their industry could take advantage of emergency aid.

Defend democracy. Click to invest in courageous progressive journalism today.
Charter operators rolled out new marketing campaigns to lure families to enroll in their schools. And in national and local news outlets, advocates for charters, vouchers, and other forms of “school choice” helped forge a new media narrative about how the shuttering of the nation’s schools was an opportunity for parents and their children to leave public schools.

Teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland urged their districts to stop charter school expansions and co-locations, which they believe worsen the trauma that children in their communities are experiencing due to the virus. But the Trump administration and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have shown no signs of easing up their campaigns to further privatize public schools.

“This is an opportunity,” said DeVos in an interview with right-wing radio talk show host Glenn Beck, “to collectively look very seriously at the fact that K-12 education for too long has been very static and very stuck in one method of delivering and making instruction available.”

A Gift from DeVos

On March 27, one of DeVos’s first reactions to the pandemic was to urge Congress to provide “microgrants” to help “the most disadvantaged students,” an idea that struck knowledgeable education policy observers—including retired teacher Peter Greene and National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia—as being in sync with her longtime advocacy for school vouchers. Somehow the mass shuttering of the nation’s schools convinced her “that necessity has never been more evident.”

A week and a half later, DeVos unveiled an investment of more than $200 million in grants from the federal government to help 13 charter school management companies expand.

It’s not at all clear the new grants come with new measures to oversee how charters spend the money. If they don’t, that would be a big mistake given a December 2019 report from the Network for Public Education (NPE) that found that since the charter grant program’s inception, approximately $1.17 billion has gone to schools that either never opened or that opened and have since shut down. The failure rate of charter startups funded by the education department’s Charter School Program is 37 percent.

An earlier NPE report, which I coauthored, also found that many charter management organizations that have received federal grants are “beset with problems including conflicts of interest and profiteering.” Some of the organizations receiving this new round of federal funding have these same flaws.

For instance, the largest grant, $72 million over five years, is going to the IDEA charter chain, which in January 2020 was publicly humiliated by reports in the Houston Chronicle for its plan to use $2 million in taxpayer money to buy a luxury private jet. The Chronicle also revealed the company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on tickets and luxury box seats at San Antonio Spurs NBA games—over $400,000 in the most recent year.

Another recent report, in the Texas Monitor, revealed IDEA executives spent over $800,000 on luxury travel between 2017 and 2019, including private jets and limos. In one of these larks, IDEA CEO Tom Torkelson took a private jet to Tampa to meet with DeVos “to discuss ‘education philanthropy,’” the Texas Monitor reports. Torkelson recently resigned.

Another charter chain benefitting from DeVos’s generosity is Mater Academy, which received the second-largest grant of $57.1 million. Mater Academy is affiliated with for-profit education company Academica.

As NPE executive director Carol Burris explained in the Washington Post, three schools operated by Academica in Florida, including two in the Mater chain, were the subjects of a government investigation that found “related party transactions” between Academica and “a real estate company that leased both buildings and security services to the schools.” The companies were also connected to founders of both the Mater Academies and Academica.

An extensive investigation of Academica’s business practices conducted by privatization watchdog group In the Public Interest in 2016 found in addition to providing management services, Academica also leased facilities to many of its schools and tended to charge significantly higher rents than what non-Academica charters were made to pay.

Each of these charter school operations deserves close scrutiny of their business practices, but DeVos has chosen to reward them with over $129 million in federal funding at a time when public school districts are in crisis and likely face severe budget cuts.

How Charters Double-Dip

When Congress and the Trump administration announced plans in late March to send $13.5 billion in emergency aid to public schools, the charter school industry insisted it deserves its cut of the rescue funds too.

Writing in the pro-charter media outlet The 74, Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), said DeVos and governors should encourage districts to release these funds to schools “without regard to differences in school model,” meaning not to exclude charters.

In her letter telling governors where to apply for the emergency funds, DeVos specified the money was intended to support “schools (including charter schools and non-public schools),” meaning funds could be spent on charter schools and private schools.

Days before, Rees insisted charter schools be regarded as public schools and eligible for emergency aid, her organization also advised charter schools to apply for federal rescue funds for small businesses devastated by the pandemic.

According to Education Week, charter lobbying groups including NAPCS have “urged charter schools… to consider applying for the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, a short-term loan program designed to help businesses cover payroll expenses.”

Rees, who previously worked as a deputy assistant for domestic policy to former Vice President Dick Cheney, justified the request by claiming to the Education Week reporter, “The last recession hit charter schools pretty significantly” and that the fallout from COVID-19 might adversely affect “private giving to support their operations.”

But in the same article, NPE’s Carol Burris pointed out that “charter schools have had no drop in the funding stream” as a result of the pandemic, because state funding for both charter schools and school districts has already been set for the current academic year.