Archives for category: For-Profit

Carol Burris knows every detail of the U.S. Department of Education’s new regulations for charter schools. She has studied them closely and written about what they mean. They are a reasonable effort to create accountability for the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars a year on charter schools. The federal Charter Schools Program began in 1994 as a $4 million annual fund to start new charter schools. In the nearly three decades since then, the program has grown (in response to the powerful charter lobby) to $440 million a year. The program, until now, has been unregulated. It has been riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse. As two well-documented reports (see here and here) by the Network for Public Education demonstrated, a large number of charters received federal funding but never opened or closed soon after opening. While the original intent of the program was to jumpstart small, teacher-led or mom-and-pop charters, the program grew into a slush fund for big charter chains, grifters, and slick, for-profit entrepreneurs.

The U.S. Department of Education wisely decided it was time to set some rules. Federal funding comes with rules.

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg knows none of this context. He recently wrote (or one of his aides wrote) an uninformed article in the Washington Post about the Department’s new regulations for the Federal Charter School Program. He falsely claimed that the regulations were a “victory” for the charter industry, even though the charter industry fought the regulations vigorously. Bloomberg’s article was a lame attempt to put a happy face on a major defeat for the charter lobbyists.

Carol Burris responded:

Michael Bloomberg embarrassed himself with his recent op-ed published in the Washington Post entitled “Charter School Change is a Victory for Children.” It would appear that given the efforts and funding that his organization put into blocking Charter School Program reforms, he now feels the need to take an unearned victory lap.

Bloomberg begins his op-ed by thanking the Biden Administration for listening to parents and editorialists—like himself. After participating in the month-long hate fest that claimed the President was “at war with charter schools,” he and his allies at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools are likely eager to creep out of the doghouse.

In addition to its heated rhetoric insulting the President and telling Secretary Cardona to back off, the charter lobby deliberately spread misinformation regarding the U.S. Department of Education’s then-proposed Charter School Program reforms. They falsely claimed that over-enrollment in district schools and cooperation with a public school district were prerequisites to obtaining CSP funding. Bloomberg used his influence to write op-eds that parroted the campaign of misinformation.

As I explained here in the Washington Post Answer Sheet, neither claim was valid. Now, Bloomberg once again twists the truth with three additional false narratives in his recent op-ed.

The first is as follows.

“The Department of Education’s original proposal could have prevented public charter schools with long wait lists from expanding or replicating if the district schools were under-enrolled.”

This was inaccurate when he first wrote it and is still untrue. Under-enrollment was an example of one of the ways charter schools could demonstrate need. Waiting lists, special missions, and other ways to show need were always allowed. This was clarified by the Department long before the final regulations were published.

The second false claim in his op-ed is:

“It [proposed regulations] would have prioritized funding for public charter schools that enter into formal contracts with district schools, making charters dependent on the good will and good faith of schools that may see them as competitors.”

Mr. Bloomberg better check again.

Priority 2 (charter/district cooperation) is still in the regulations as an invitational priority this year. Invitational is one of three levels of priority. The proposed regulations never stated which level priority 2 would have. The priority, by being retained, also opens the door for priority 2 to become a higher priority in the coming years.

And finally:

“And it would have restricted public charters from receiving early implementation funding that can be crucial to the process of opening a school. The proposal was amended to prevent those outcomes.”

The amendment he refers to (see below) was a change without distinction. Those implementation funds cannot be used; therefore, the original restriction, for all intents and purposes, is still intact.

This is the minor change between the proposed and final regulations, as explained by the Department here.

“We amended Assurance (f) to remove the requirement that applicants provide an assurance that they will not “use or provide” implementation funds for a charter school until after the eligible applicant has received an approved charter and secured a facility so that applicants are required only to provide an assurance that they will not “use” implementation funds prior to receiving an approved charter and securing a facility.”

If the schools cannot use the funds, whether or not they are “provided” is irrelevant.

I do not know who penned this op-ed for Mr. Bloomberg. But I do know this. His buddies at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, likely with his financial support, spent a king’s ransom trying to get the U.S. Department of Education to scrap or delay the regulations. In the process, they alienated members of Congress, especially powerful House Appropriations Chair Rosa De Lauro, as well as members of the Department. Their campaign was relentless, nasty, and very expensive.

But in the world of Michael Bloomberg, the truth is flexible, and he can use the influence derived from his fortune to put in print whatever “truth” suits his purpose.

However, those of us who have followed this carefully know the deal. As charter devotee, Jeanne Allen tweeted to the National Alliance’s Nina Rees, who was also trying to claim victory, “You should probably read thoroughly the final CSP #charterschool rules. All 135 pages. Not only did nothing really change, but the explanations make it worse than it was to start.”

Florida is led by a Republican governor and legislature determined to crush public schools. The state is overrun by unregulated voucher schools, where teachers and principals need no certification. Some of these openly discriminate and indoctrinate. The Orlando Sentinel ran a series about the voucher schools called “schools without rules.”

Florida has a thriving charter industry, many of them operated by for-profit corporations.

Now the state has passed a new law making it easier to open new charter schools and suck money out of the public schools.

As this rampant privatization continues, Governor DeSantis keeps up a barrage of attacks on public schools and their teachers, accusing them of “indoctrinating” their students with anti-racist views and “grooming” children to be transgender.

The Houston Chronicle reports that a participant in the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol is likely to be elected to the Texas State Board of Education. She has pledged to fight “critical race theory” (i.e. teaching about racism) and to support charter schools.

Underscoring Texas lawmakers’ rightward lurch on education issues in recent years, the candidate likely to replace a moderate Republican on the State Board of Education in a district outside Houston is a right-wing activist who participated in protests at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

After winning the primary in March, the front-runner in the District 7 race is Julie Pickren, a former trustee for Alvin Independent School District. Pickren was voted off that board last year after her participation in the protest at the U.S. Capitol was revealed — the basis of a campaign against her by the Brazoria County NAACP.

Pickren is a former delegate to the GOP’s national and state conventions, her LinkedIn says, and on Facebook she blamed antifa, rather than Trump supporters, for violence during the Capitol riot, a claim that other Republicans have made without proof. She declined a request for an interview….

Republicans have moved further to the right on education issues in Texas over the past 18 months. Earlier this summer, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his support for private school vouchers and endorsed a “Parental Bill of Rights” to give parents more power over what and how their kids are taught in schools. Last year, the Legislature passed and Abbott signed a slew of conservative bills relating to education, including restrictions on how social studies can be taught and on transgender children playing school sports.

At the local level, school board politics have become increasingly heated, with often angry discussions over diversity and equity policies in the schools. Parent groups have organized PACs in opposition to what they view as progressive activism in education, raising substantial amounts of money to reshape local school boards around the state.

Next year’s State Board of Education is set to be more conservative, with Robinson leaving as well as two other Republicans who lost their March primaries to opponents supported by right-wing PACs. There are currently nine Republicans and six Democrats serving on the board.

The board’s core responsibilities include writing Texas’ public school curriculums, managing the permanent fund that backs debt taken out by schools, and deciding whether to allow new charter schools in the state; Pickren has said she supports adding more of them.

Moderate pushed out

The District 7 seat opened up last year, when the Legislature during redistricting moved incumbent Matt Robinson into a different district so he couldn’t run for re-election. Robinson, a doctor from Friendswood, has said he feels Republican political leaders in the state did this intentionally because they did not believe he was sufficiently supportive of charter schools and other conservative policy goals.

In a rare move in today’s increasingly polarized politics, Robinson is endorsing the Democrat in the race, Galveston ISD teacher Dan Hochman, to be his successor.

Why?

“Because he’s running against Julie Pickren. And she will be bad for public education,” Robinson said.

In lists of the most important issues to her campaign, Pickren has named ridding public schools of critical race theory, an academic theory that critics use as a catchall term to describe diversity and equity initiatives as well as discussion of systemic or historical racism. Pickren is also supportive of “parents rights” initiatives such as those espoused by Abbott.

“She is leading a fight, an assault on public education that’s going on right now. It’s not among all Republicans, but it’s among a good number and she’s kind of leading that fight. And the idea that critical race theory is going on in most schools and most districts, which is entirely false. So her overall approach is, in my view, anti-public education,” Robinson said…

Soul of public education

Hochman acknowledged that he’s facing an uphill climb in the race, as the district leans conservative. Pickren’s campaign has spent about $40,000 so far, while Hochman’s has spent about $10,000. Hochman said his campaign bank account currently had less than $100 in it…

“It really, truly is a fight for the soul of public education in the state of Texas, which is failing right now,” Hochman said of the race. Hochman added that he would oppose expansion of charter schools.

“I’m up against a woman who is clearly anti-public education. She’s being funded by the far right, whose agenda has been publicly clear that they want to dismantle public education and replace it with private schools and charter schools so they can push through a far-right Christian agenda in schooling. And that’s not like a conspiracy, that’s been pretty much out in the open.”

edward.mckinley@chron.com

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and prominent advocate for the public schools of Philadelphia. Those public schools have been subject to state takeover, privatization, and every other failed reformy tactic. She hoped that those bad old days were over. They are not. The new board hired an inexperienced superintendent who needed the help of a much-criticized consulting firm at a cost of $450,000.

She expressed her frustration in this article.

After years of pain and frustration that included the closing of neighborhood schools, privatization driven by standardized tests, crumbling infrastructure, and more than one debacle, the people of Philadelphia were psyched for new leadership in the school district.

The door to new priorities seemed to open with the arrival of Tony Watlington as the next superintendent.

But that door slammed shut before his tenure had even begun with the news that he’d brought in a Tennessee-based consulting firm to help him navigate his first year in the job. In May, the Board of Education voted unanimously and without deliberation to approve a one-year contract with Joseph & Associates. Price tag: $450,000. The board approved this contract — the last on a list of 92 official items — near the end of an 8-hour meeting.

According to a recent Chalkbeat article, the board hired the consulting firm to help Watlington “connect with people,” assist in assembling his transition team, and develop a 5-year plan for the district. Watlington said he asked for the contract so he could “hit the ground running by Day 1,” according to The Inquirer.

Apparently, Watlington decided the district’s current leadership of 16 department chiefs and 15 assistant superintendents could not help him do that, and that people from Tennessee could educate him about the district’s history and needs better than the people who live and work in Philly.

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, the organization I co-founded, has reported on and analyzed the spending priorities of the district since 2012. We intended to ask the board directly why they hired Joseph & Associates, but all five APPS members who tried to sign up to speak at the June meeting were denied.

Last winter, in public town halls held for the three superintendent finalists, Watlington told parents, students, and educators he had a plan and wanted to meet with district stakeholders to hear their concerns. He didn’t say he could only do that by hiring an out-of-town consulting firm at a price higher than his own $340,000 salary.

The first official act of the new administration signals a continuation of those before him: hiring consultants and outsourcing work that should be done by district personnel. Sending resources into classrooms remains on the back burner.

The scope of the Joseph & Associates contract raises concerns for families and public education advocates for a number of reasons. Watlington said he wants the consultants to help him assess how the district can best meet the board’s “Goals and Guardrails” — a set of priorities based on standardized test data. This approach does not lend itself to creative learning or teaching. The Watlington administration should commit to funding proven reforms: smaller class size, more support staff, and reinstating school librarians.

But it’s the final phase of the Joseph & Associates contract that should sound the alarm for defenders of public education: the compilation of a 5-year “strategic plan” for the district. Many recall what happened a decade ago after the last long-range plan from an outside firm, the Boston Consulting Group: school closings and more privatization of neighborhood schools. Any plan that determines the future of the district and its ramifications for families and neighborhoods should be discussed and formulated in public meetings — not the private boardrooms of an out-of-state consulting firm.

Peter Greene reports the selling of heavily clad bunkers for classrooms to protect children against killers.

We have a problem. There are 400 million guns owned by the population. One of our major political parties is adamantly opposed to any restraint on buying and selling more guns.

Other societies insist on background checks, proof of training, safes for guns, and a dozen other ways to minimize the misuse of these deadly weapons. Even the most tepid effort to limit gun ownership will be loudly opposed in this country. The recent bipartisanship deal on gun control won’t change any of that.

The recent assassination of the former Prime Minister of Japan, which has rigid limits on gun ownership, was held up by gun lovers as proof that gun control doesn’t work. Japan had a total of ten gun deaths last year.

So, Greene points out, since we do nothing to restrict gun ownership, we create a response to the problem. Buy bunkers for children in classrooms. This could be a billion-dollar business.

PS: then there’s the case of the Uvalde elementary school. Just-released videotape showed that the police, fully armed, stayed out of the classrooms where the killer was, for 77-78 minutes. As children and teachers died, the police held back. Why? They didn’t need a key. They didn’t need more weapons. They didn’t need more armor. They needed courage.

Blogger Carl Petersen posted this photo on Twitter.

Do you sincerely believe that any Black student opposes teaching about the history of racism? Isn’t it amazing to see this photograph of Black students attending the for-profit Mater Academy in Florida , holding up signs opposing critical race theory? CRT means an analysis of the roots of racism in our history, our laws, and our politics.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed the anti-CRT bill at the same charter school. He believes that teaching the truth is hateful.

Do you think these children actually oppose CRT?

Or were they indoctrinated?

For years, reformers celebrated the grand success of Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Politicians lauded it and poured money in. ECOT’s owner reciprocated by giving generously to politicians. Governor John Kasich gave the commencement address one year; Jeb Bush did another year.

But the state auditor (who was also a commencement speaker in 2015) checked the books and the whole ECOT edifice came crashing down. Ghost students, payments to companies owned by the founder, numerous ways to profit from the state’s generosity.

ECOT still owes Ohio more than $100 million.

Theodore Decker wrote in the Columbus Dispatch:

If there is such a thing as justice in this imperfect world, investigators in a federal building somewhere in Columbus are nudging ever close to it while digging into the billion-dollar boondoggle once known as the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

ECOT, at one time the state’s largest online charter school, collapsed four years ago amid claims that it had taken millions in undeserved state aid.

Allegations of wrongdoing were traded by the school and state education department. Lawsuits were filed. And about 12,000 students were left in the lurch when the school imploded.

Then ECOT fell out of the public view, overtaken by a thick layer of general dirtiness at a time when political scandal was the norm from the White House to the Statehouse.

An audit just released this week, though, found that ECOT still owes the state more than $117 million.

Ohio Auditor Keith Faber on Tuesday said the shuttered school owes $106.6 million to the state Department of Education and another $10.6 million to the state Attorney General’s office.

As others have before them, Faber’s auditors found that ECOT wasn’t entitled to all the state money it received, including some in 2016 and 2017 and none in 2018.

ECOT as an entity may be gone, but for the sake of all taxpaying Ohioans, it had better not be forgotten.

Looking at the broad sweep of the ECOT swindle, it seems unfathomable that not a single indictment has been lodged against anyone in connection with its shady operations.

The main man behind ECOT was William Lager, a man with a host of Statehouse connections who founded the school in 2000. He also operated Altair Learning Management Inc and IQ Innovations LLC, which had lucrative contracts with ECOT to provide support services. After ECOT fell apart, Attorney General Dave Yost called Lager “the principal wrongdoer“ in the case.

The series of lethal blows to Lager’s empire began in 2016, when the Department of Education demanded repayment of $80 million.

But ECOT’s attendance numbers had been disputed by the state long before that, as far back as 2006. Going back even further, to 2001 and 2002, an audit determined that the state had been overpaying the school by millions.

That ECOT’s attendance numbers were disputed so early on in its existence – and how that problem regardless went unaddressed for so long by a string of governors, legislators and state officials – are looming questions that must be the stuff of any civic-minded federal prosecutor’s dreams.

And maybe, we can hope, they still are.

Yost, while still the state auditor, excoriated ECOT in 2018 and referred his findings to both county and federal prosecutors.

The feds are a secretive lot who have a habit of neither confirming nor denying the existence of any pending investigation, but there have been a few dropped clues through the years that a probe of ECOT is afoot.

One of the biggest came in 2019, when the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice subpoenaed nearly 20 years of ECOT’s campaign contribution records.

More than three years have passed since that development, but the feds also don’t have a habit of rushing their investigations.

Maybe they will wrap things up without uncovering a single instance of criminal behavior.

If you possess a lick of common sense, given what we know already, that outcome would boggle the mind.

But even if that is how an investigation concludes, prosecutors at the very least should know many more details about how ECOT and its principals were permitted to run amok for so long.

Considering Ohio’s taxpayers footed the bill, we have the right to know each and every one of them.

Denis Smith is a retired educator. After teaching for many years, he worked in the charter school office of the Ohio Department of Education. There, he learned about charter frauds and charter political influence. He wrote the following article in the Ohio Capital Journal.

He begins:

Like the famed Casablanca police captain Louis Renault, Ohio taxpayers were shocked, shocked to learn recently from the state auditor’s office that the notorious online charter school ECOT, which closed in 2018, owes the state $117 million. A “Finding for Recovery” posted last week on the auditor’s website provided the details.

The announcement by Auditor of State Keith Faber that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, known familiarly as ECOT, owes the state such a huge amount for submitting inflated student enrollment data was met by a prolonged yawn among most of the state’s residents as well as media outlets.

Ohio residents were shocked, shocked at the news.

Not.

It seems that Ohioans have formed a natural immunity regarding any additional bad news about ECOT, known by some as “The School for Scandal,” with apologies to playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Back in 2017, one of my articles about “The School for Scandal” likened its longevity to the Energizer Bunny and described the different meanings people derived from seeing the online charter school’s acronym. Readers also chimed in with their own descriptors:

ECOT Effectively Cleaning Ohio’s Treasury

ECOTEndlessly Cheating Ohio’s Taxpayers

ECOTEnough Corruption for Ohio Taxpayers

ECOTEasy Cash on Tap

What does not make the ECOT saga unique is that it merely mirrors much of charterdom and affirms the industry’s image as a slow-motion train wreck. Sadly, a plethora of stories about issues surrounding The School for Scandal’s improprieties published years before its demise were not catalysts for action.

But if misery loves company, ECOT, which operated at full blast draining the state’s treasury for 18 years, is but one of more than 300 failed charter schools now closed that performed with near impunity as the result of a charter-friendly design built into the Ohio Revised Code. That section of the code favors private operators for the schools and limits the amount of transparency and accountability for these constructs that are provided about 150 exemptions in law that public schools themselves are required to meet.

That charter DNA design allowed ECOT’s founder, William Lager, to form privately owned management companies to operate the school and thus limit the amount of sunshine that could be cast by auditors and those charged to provide oversight for the school. That same design for charters, which are privately operated with public funds, allowed Lager to donate generously to some of his favorite Republican politicians, including state Sen. Andrew Brenner, who currently serves as chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Over the years of its operation, as seen by his donations to the Republican leadership, it was clear that Lager was buying friends in the legislature.

“Lager is, by far, Brenner’s largest individual contributor,” the Columbus Dispatch reported in May 2018, four months after the school’s closure. Brenner pocketed $27,564 in three payments from Lager from 2015-2017, but lamely said that the money didn’t come from the school. Moreover, Brenner, a champion of the private sector and privately operated but state funded charter schools, had no qualms about accepting money from Lager, whose fortune was built upon a cash cow fed by the public treasury.

Then there is the situation with Attorney General Dave Yost. From 2013-2015, Yost spoke at ECOT graduation ceremonies and heaped praise on its supposed place in the state’s educational sector. At one of those commencements, the then-Auditor of State presented ECOT with the Ohio Auditor of State Award with Distinction, meaning the school met the standard for a “clean audit.”

Clean audit? Refer to the previous box – ECOT = Effectively Cleaning Ohio’s Treasury. In retrospect, that acronym might be appropriate.

According to the state auditor’s website, the Ohio Department of Education “determined ECOT was not entitled to a portion of the funding it had received in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, as well as none of the funding received in fiscal 2018.”

ECOT critics might pose another question: what about from 2000 to 2015?

The current situation with ECOT reminds us of the classic Thomas Nast cartoon which first appeared 150 years ago:

What Are You Going to Do About It?

More than four years after the school’s closure, that question can’t be avoided.

When it comes to this charter’s audits, some things just don’t add up, particularly when the state auditor went out of his way to praise ECOT. Yet for years some individuals in state government, particularly in the department of education, had serious concerns about the reported enrollment figures for the school, well before the praise heaped on it by then-auditor Yost.

The Auditor of State’s website shows the honor conveyed in January 2016, less than two years before the school was shuttered.

“The school’s excellent record keeping has qualified for the Auditor of State Award with Distinction,” Yost’s AOS website boasted about the nefarious online charter school.

Those familiar with the jaded history of the failed charter, with its founder’s habit of distributing widespread campaign contributions to powerful Republican officeholders, are skeptical about seeing any accountability in this election year for the school’s submission of padded student enrollment figures.

Indeed, when allegations grew in 2016 about the school’s true enrollment, Lager’s contributions to the state Republican Party and officeholders continued unabated. Moreover, a mysterious website called 3rd Rail Politics emerged that year to defend the school as well as attack those who opposed charters in general and ECOT in particular.

If all things related to ECOT have moved at a snail’s pace – or not at all – 4 ½ years after the school’s closure, skepticism about action against Lager and his acolytes in state government, who provided favorable treatment for this generous Republican mega donor, is palpable among the populace.

In 2018, Louise Valentine, Brenner’s Democratic opponent for the Senate seat he currently holds, framed the issue with Brenner and his ties to Lager and the rest of the charter industry.

“It all started with the legislators who crafted the education policies that allowed for a complete lack of oversight for these so-called schools,” she said in a Tweet. “People like @andrewbrenner took $$$$ from ECOT and then defended their lack of accountability.”

There’s that word again – accountability. But there are some astute citizens who are speaking their minds about the influence of donors in the charter industry and with the ECOT situation.

The reader comments following one of the latest Columbus Dispatch articles detailing the auditor’s Findings for Recovery against ECOT contain several comments which are illustrative of the skepticism about eventual action against Lager:

Corrupt GOP general assembly aided and abetted this scam from the beginning.

Or this:

ECOT spent millions getting the GOP elected. No worries, Bill Lager.

As Ohio citizens begin to focus on issues for the fall elections, including gun violence and the wholesale proliferation of weapons, the growing threat from right-wing domestic terrorism, reproductive rights, environmental protection and regulation, along with voting rights, we need to add one more to this list of issues: ECOT – and the charter industry itself.

What are we going to do about it? What kind of controls are in place by law and regulation to ensure the lawful expenditure of public funds consumed by a rogue online charter school? For that matter, with more than 300 “dead” Ohio charter schools that are part of the detritus created by school privatization and educational deregulation, why in heaven is the legislature considering any kind of voucher legislation that will only add more stress to our fracturing society?

If we are supposed to remember in November, we should be alert as to what actions, if any, have been put in motion to do whatever it takes to recover the lion’s share of the $117 million owed to Ohioans. And if you’re skeptical, join the club.

ECOT was supposed to provide daily a minimum of five hours of “learning opportunities” for its students. If a number of our fellow citizens start contacting their elected representatives to ask them what they’re going to do about the ECOT debacle and more regulation of charters, perhaps that might serve as a preemptive measure to stop any further action about educational vouchers. Your call will no doubt provide a learning opportunity for Republicans in the legislature to realize that with ECOT and other charter scandals, enough is too much.

One more thing. Now that we know all of this, what are we going to do about it?

Make no mistake: the changes to the federal Charter Schools Program a few days ago was a big win for supporters of public schools and a major defeat for the charter lobby, led by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The Network for Public Education was proud to lead the fight to reform the Charter Schools Program, which started in 1994 as a tiny program to help jumpstart new charters but turned into a slush fund to pump federal money into giant charter chains like KIPP, IDEA, and Success Academy, all of which are very well funded by their billionaire board members and friends.

The charter lobby, overflowing with cash, bought ads on major television programs to fight the Department’s effort to regulate the federal funding of charters, especially the proposed exclusion of for-profit charter operators. The Network for Public Education did not have millions or even hundreds of thousands to lobby on behalf of public schools. It did not buy any TV or radio time. NPE is funded by the 350,000 friends who contribute small amounts of money to fight privatization. Contrary to the claims of the charter lobby, NPE is not funded by the teachers’ unions. It is funded by parents, teachers, principals, and other citizens who don’t want to lose their public schools.

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, has worked tirelessly to persuade the U.S. Department of Education and members of Congress to require accountability and set rules for the federal Charter Schools Program. She wrote numerous reports, based on government data, to demonstrate the need for oversight. The program receives $440 million a year with no scrutiny, and its waste, fraud, and abuse are legion. Unlike the charter lobby, NPE has a small staff. Carol is the only full-time employee. Her hard work paid off. Despite the millions of dollars spent by the charter lobby to keep the federal dollars flowing without accountability, transparency or oversight, the Department ignored them.

Carol Burris explained the new regulations in a post on Valerie Strauss’s blog “The Answer Sheet” at The Washington Post.

Strauss begins:

The Biden administration is moving to overhaul the federal Charter School Program with new rules finalized last week that make it harder for for-profit organizations to win taxpayer money and require greater transparency and accountability for grant applicants.

The program has awarded billions of dollars in grants over the past several decades for the expansion or opening of charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated, often with little or no public oversight. President Biden said during the 2020 election campaign that he wanted to end federal funding for for-profit charter schools, but the final regulations don’t go that far.

Charter school supporters strongly objected to a draft set of rules released earlier this year, saying they seemed intended to kill the program outright, which the Education Department denied. Nina Rees, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement that the final regulations appear to be “less harmful than the original proposal,” but added that more analysis of the details was needed.

Critics of the federal Charter School Program said both the draft set of regulation changes and the final versions were important moves to stop waste and fraud in the federal program and provide more transparency to the operation of charters.

Charter advocates say these schools offer necessary choices to families that want alternatives to troubled schools in traditional public school districts. Critics say charter schools drain funding from public school districts that educate the vast majority of children in the United States, and are part of a movement to privatize public education.

The Network for Public Education, an advocacy organization that opposes charter schools, has published several reports since 2019 on the federal program, revealing the waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on charter schools that did not open or were shut down. The reports also showed that the Education Department did not adequately monitor federal grants to these schools. You can read about two of those reports here and here. A third report details how many for-profit management companies evade state laws banning for-profit charters.

This post analyzes the final rules that the Education Department released last week — though more details are yet to come. The following was written by Carol Burris, an award-winning New York school principal who is now executive director of the Network for Public Education and who wrote or co-wrote the reports mentioned above. Burris has written extensively about charter schools and other school reform efforts for more than a decade on The Answer Sheet.

By Carol Burris

Last week, efforts to clean up the wasteful federal Charter School Program (CSP) made remarkable progress. First, the fiscal year 2023 House Appropriations bill report not only made cuts to the CSP program budget, it demanded improvements. Then the day after the passage of the bill by the House Appropriations Committee, the long-awaited final regulations for the Charter School Program were published by the Education Department. Although a few concessions were made to the charter lobby, nearly all proposed regulations remained intact from a draft version released earlier this year.

Let’s start with the fiscal year 2023 House Appropriations bill. It reduced the Charter School Program budget by $40 million from President Biden’s request to keep funding for next year the same as this, at $440 million. The bill also called on Congress and the U.S. Education Department to phase out for-profit management organizations, and encouraged further investigations and reforms. In short, it supported the proposed CSP regulations.

During a June 30 hearing on the bill, two amendments — the first to defund the Department of Education’s regulation efforts and the second to restore the $40 million budget cut — were defeated in committee votes.

When Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) offered his amendment to kill the new regulations by defunding them, (watch beginning at 3:20:37), Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairman of the committee, expressed her “strong opposition.” She accused the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools of “peddling un-credible exaggerations” and “misrepresentations” to defeat what she characterized as modest reforms. She further stated that they had been “willing to take desperate measures to block accountability and transparency” to protect for-profit education management organizations. She voiced her strong support for reform of the CSP to address long-standing concerns. Moolenaar’s amendment was defeated 32 to 22.

The following day, on July 1, the department held an informational briefing on the final new regulations, the priorities, and the assurances applicants must provide to secure a grant from the Charter School Program (CSP). Following the meeting, three documents were posted here. The first describes the submitted comments and the department’s response to them as well as the new requirements for the three grant programs within the overall CSP (SE, or State Entity; CMO, or charter management organization; and Developer, or charter school developers).

The department received 26,580 comments on the proposed regulations, most of which were generated from letter-writing campaigns. Of all of the comments, 5,770 were unique. According to the department, “the majority [of comments] expressed general support for the regulations and the priorities.”

For those who have long advocated for overhauling the CSP program, here are the significant gains.

Schools managed by for-profits will have a difficult time securing CSP grants and, in some cases, will be excluded from funding.

If an applicant has or will have a contract with a for-profit management company (or a “nonprofit management organization operated by or on behalf of a for-profit entity”), they must provide extensive information, including a copy or description of the contract, comprehensive leadership personnel reporting and the identification of possible related party transactions. Real estate contracts must be reported, and “evergreen contracts” in which there is automatic contract renewal are prohibited. The school cannot share legal, accounting or auditing services with the for-profit. The state entity that awards the grant must publish the for-profit management contract between the awardee and the school.

The final regulations also include the reporting and exposure of the for-profit’s related entities. The Network for Public Education recommended the addition of “related entities” in its comments to the department. Our report, “Chartered for Profit,” explains how for-profit owners create separate corporations with different names to mask the complete control of the for-profit over operations of the school.

Finally, the applicant must assure that “the [for-profit] management company does not exercise full or substantial control over the charter school,” thereby barring any charter school operated by a for-profit with a “sweeps contract” from obtaining CSP funds.

There will be greater transparency and accountability for charter schools, State Entities, and CMOs that apply for grants.

This is probably the most underreported win for those who support charter school reform.

Transparency gains include:

  • An assurance that the grantee holds a public hearing on the proposed or expanded charter school. These hearings must be well advertised and include information on how the school will increase diversity and not promote segregation. Schools are obligated to reach out to the community to encourage attendance and then provide a summary of the hearing as part of the application. These public hearings are required of direct grantees and subgrantees — both SE and CMO.
  • The publication of for-profit management contracts.
  • The publication of the names of awardee schools and their peer-reviewed applications by states and CMOs.
  • A requirement that the school publish information for prospective parents, including fees, uniform requirements, disciplinary practices, transportation plans, and whether the school participates in the national free or reduced-price lunch program.

Accountability gains include:

  • More substantial supervision by state entities of the schools that are awarded grants, including in-depth descriptions of how they will review applications, the peer review process they will use, and how they will select grantees for in-depth monitoring.
  • Restrictions regarding the spending of grants by unauthorized schools. Charter schools not yet approved by an authorizer will be eligible to use planning grant funds; however, they cannot dip into any implementation funds until they are approved and have secured a facility. This new regulation will limit, though not prevent, all funding that goes to charter schools that never open.

Regulations to stop White-flight charters from receiving CSP funding and ensure the charter is needed in the community.

The final regulations are good, but not as strong as initially proposed.

One of the more controversial aspects of the new regulations was the need for the school to conduct a community impact analysis. The charter lobby focused on one example by which a school could show need (district over-enrollment) and used it as a rallying cry to garner opposition to the regulations. In the new regulations, the department clarifies that there are other ways to demonstrate need, including wait lists and offering a unique program. It also eliminated the need for the applicant to provide a district enrollment projection.

The community impact analysis is now called a needs analysis. That analysis must include evidence of community desire for the school; documentation of the school’s enrollment projection and how it was derived; a comparison of the demographics of the school with the area where the students are likely to be drawn; the projected impact of the school on racial and socio-economic district diversity; and an assurance that the school would not “hamper, delay or negatively affect” district desegregation efforts. Applicants would also have to submit their plan to ensure that the charter school does not increase racial segregation and isolation in the school district from which the charter would draw its students.

The department went to great pains to reassure applicants that schools in racially isolated districts would not need to show diversity (this straw man argument had been used by the charter lobby and even some editorial boards to fight the regulations, although the original rules had made that clear). Those schools that are unlikely to be diverse due to the school’s special mission would also have to submit an explanation.

Still, there are some concerns about unintended consequences of the regulations.

With the additional caveat regarding “special mission,” the department is trying to preserve grants to schools that are themed to promote, for example, Native American culture in an area where Native American students are a minority population in the district. That is understandable.

However, White-flight charter schools could skirt the regulation by arguing that their mission is to provide a Eurocentric, classical curriculum.

For example, charter schools opened by Hillsdale College — a small Christian college in Michigan that promotes a “classical” curriculum — are disproportionately White. These schools could claim that their mission appeals to students with European backgrounds and that the strong “anti-CRT” message in their “1776 curriculum” does not appeal to Black families. Although Hillsdale College does not take federal funds, Hillsdale charter schools do. We have identified nearly $7 million awarded to Hillsdale member charter schools up to April 2021. Newer schools have likely secured CSP grants as well.

Priority 2 — which encouraged charter/public school cooperation — was retained but categorized as “invitational” for the 2022 cycle.

The second straw man argument the National Alliance for Public Charters used to fuel their #backoff campaign on the regulations was the claim that charter/public school district cooperative projects were required. They were not. They were a priority, and priorities can be mandated, competitive (assigned a few points), or invitational (looked up favorably but no point value).

As I explained here, it is rare for a priority to be mandated. For example, of the six priorities for the 2022 State Entities grants, only one is required, which is that authorizers use best practices. The department now makes it clear that it is unlikely that charter/district cooperative activity will ever be a mandated priority while leaving the door open to it becoming a competitive priority after the 2022 award cycle.

All regulations, priorities and assurances go into effect for this 2022 grant cycle with one exception: Developer grant applicants, a small program in which individual schools apply, do not have to submit a needs analysis in 2022 only. That is because applications are due shortly.

Summary

Since 2019 when the Network for Public Education issued its reports on the federal Charter School Program, the program has come under increased congressional scrutiny. We have followed up by submitting letters to the department, often co-signed by other groups, demanding reform and exposing abuses of the program.

These new regulations are an essential first step in making sure that fewer tax dollars go to schools that never open, schools that quickly close, and for-profit operators. Unscrupulous individuals who used the program for their enrichment will find it more difficult to do so. State Entities that have pushed money out the door will now be forced to provide more oversight and supervision. And so they should. State Entities get 10 percent of every grant, representing millions of federal dollars, to use for such supervision.

We do not doubt that some applicants will still provide false information, as we found time and time again, but now as all peer-reviewed applications go online, groups such as ours will serve as watchdogs and report falsehoods and misrepresentations to the Office of the Inspector General.

And for all of the charter schools that are fronts for for-profit organizations, the Education Department just put a big sign on the door that says “you need not apply.”

As readers of this blog know, the Network for Public Education has strongly supported reform of the federal Charter Schools Program, which got its start in 1994 to help mom-and-pop start-up charters. Led by Carol Burris, executive director of NPE, we released two reports showing that the CSP program had wasted nearly a billion dollars, that it funded white flight academies, that it was marred by waste, fraud, and abuse, and that it was a major funder for charter chains.

Biden’s Department of Education issued draft regulations to reform CSP, and the charter lobby spent millions pushing back against any reforms.

The charter lobby lost!

Jan Resseger reports the good news: the U.S. Department of Education stood its ground.