Re­port on char­ter schools is ‘ex­tremely trou­bling’

Orlando Sentinel - - LABORLAND -

an in­ter­view that she found the new re­port “ex­tremely trou­bling.”

“It raises some very le­git­i­mate ques­tions about a fed­eral grant pro­gram that seems to have been op­er­at­ing for years and years with lit­tle over­sight and very lit­tle ac­count­abil­ity,” she said.

The re­port — pub­lished by the Net­work for Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion, an ad­vo­cacy group that sup­ports pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and was co­founded by ed­u­ca­tion his­to­rian and ad­vo­cate Diane Rav­itch — says that the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment has failed for years to prop­erly mon­i­tor how its char­ter grant fund­ing is spent. The new find­ings fol­low “Asleep at the Wheel,” the net­work’s March re­port which said up to $1 bil­lion was wasted over the life of CSP on char­ter schools that never opened or opened and then closed. Af­ter that re­port’s re­lease, con­gres­sional Democrats voted to cut mil­lions of dol­lars from the CSP.

Char­ter schools are fi­nanced by the pub­lic but pri­vately op­er­ated. Most states re­quire that non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions open schools, but some per­mit for-profit com­pa­nies to op­er­ate the schools. About 6% of U.S. school­child­ren at­tend char­ter schools. Cal­i­for­nia has the most char­ter schools and the most char­ter stu­dents; in Los An­ge­les, 20% of chil­dren at­tend such schools. In the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, al­most half of Washington, D.C.’s school­child­ren go to char­ters.

Char­ter sup­port­ers say the 30-year-old move­ment of­fers im­por­tant al­ter­na­tives to tra­di­tional pub­lic schools, which ed­u­cate the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­ica’s stu­dents, and that the move­ment is still learn­ing. Op­po­nents say that there is lit­tle pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity over many char­ters and that they drain re­sources from tra­di­tional dis­tricts. Re­search shows that stu­dent out­comes are, over­all, largely the same in char­ter and tra­di­tional pub­lic schools, though there are fail­ures and ex­em­plars in both.

The new re­port found:

■ The dis­burse­ment of more than $1 bil­lion dur­ing the pro­gram’s first decade — from 1995 to 2005 — was never mon­i­tored, and there is no com­plete pub­lic record of which schools re­ceived the funds be­cause the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment never re­quired states to re­port where the money went. Dur­ing that pe­riod, Cal­i­for­nia re­ceived $191 mil­lion; Florida $158.4 mil­lion; and Michi­gan $64.6 mil­lion.

■ The over­all rate of failed char­ter projects from 2006-2014 was 37%, with some states post­ing a much higher fail­ure rate. In Iowa, for ex­am­ple, 11 char­ter schools re­ceived grants and 10 failed af­ter re­ceiv­ing a to­tal of $3.66 mil­lion. The fail­ure rate ex­ceeded 50% in a num­ber of states, in­clud­ing Ge­or­gia, Delaware, Hawaii, Mary­land and Vir­ginia. In Cal­i­for­nia, 37% failed ei­ther to open or stay open, af­ter win­ning nearly $103 mil­lion in CSP fund­ing.

■ Al­though Congress for­bids for-profit op­er­a­tors from di­rectly re­ceiv­ing CSP grants, some of them still were able to ben­e­fit. The re­port says 357 schools in the data­base were run by for­profit chains, for a to­tal cost of $125 mil­lion in fed­eral CSP start-up costs. Most of that money was spent in Michi­gan and in Florida.

In Michi­gan, 40 char­ter schools opened with CSP money and then closed. About 80% of char­ter schools are op­er­ated by for­profit com­pa­nies with what Ul­brich said was un­usual im­punity. For ex­am­ple, she said, the new re­port de­tails how some Michi­gan char­ter op­er­a­tors took some of the grant money for their own use. “I don’t know of a lot of fed­eral grants that peo­ple get where they can turn around and di­vert the money into their own pock­ets,” she said.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP

Michi­gan, home of Betsy DeVos, has the most char­ter schools that never opened.

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