Do we need a national moratorium on charter schools?

Federal funds diverted from public schools to charters with little accountability.
By: | Issue: October, 2015
June 23, 2015

Making public education more accountable has for years been the solemn pledge of government officials, including the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Yet that same level of accountability and transparency doesn’t seem to apply to the fastest growing sector of K12 educationÑcharter schools.

That has to stop, says a coalition of labor, community and public education advocacy organizations. The coalition, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), has written a letter to Secretary Duncan raising concerns about his department’s continued funding of charter schoolsÑ$1.7 billion in grants since 2009, with little to no oversight over what schools did with the money.

Negligence

The office overseeing the federal outlays doesn’t keep a full record of the individual schools that received the money, AROS says, and doesn’t track the efforts of state agencies monitoring the schools. Some of the charter schools receiving the funds never even opened and didn’t account for what happened to unused assets purchased with the money.

Given this negligence, AROS questions the department’s proposal calling for a 48 percent increase in funding for charter schools and repeats a previous demand for a moratorium on federal funding for public charter schools.

A 2012 report from the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal charter schools program.

Audits carried out in just three states, for instance, found 26 charter schools that closed after being awarded more than $7 million in funds. Of the 26 closed charter schools, about 35 percent did not have a documented reason for closing. There were no records kept of key individuals associated with the schools, and in one of the states, California, there were no indications of what happened to assets purchased with federal funds.

A report by the Center for Media and Democracy says the federal government has spent $3.3 billion of taxpayer money on the charter school industry, “but it has done so without requiring the most basic transparency. No one actually tracks the list of charter schools that received federal tax dollars to open, expand and/or replicate charter schools, how much they received, or how they spent the people’s monies.”

An official from the Department of Education, quoted in The Washington Post (http://DAmag.me/815-wapo/) admits, “We weren’t holding states responsible for monitoring these programs.”

The official says the federal government has made efforts to “make standards clear,” but standards alone are not enough when there are no mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement. The department now gets the names of charter schools that receive federal funds, but states are expected to maintain the bulk of critical oversight. What if they don’t?

“Our students and communities are not served when federal funding for education is distributed without accountability or transparency,” AROS concludes.

Mounting concerns

The AROS letter joins other voices calling for intervention into the generally unregulated charter school industry. Century Foundation fellow Amy Dean also calls for a moratorium on charter schools. “It is time lawmakers freeze their growth,” she says, and provides numerous “precedents for a moratorium,” including Philadelphia, Chicago, Connecticut and Delaware.

Deans says charters on the whole do no better than public schools as they proliferate financial scandals and add to the increased segregation of public school populations by race, language and ability.

“A national moratorium on charter schools would stop the hemorrhaging of funds from traditional public schools,” Dean concludes. “It would also allow time to address the corruption that has plagued the charter industry. This would create an opportunity for some reflection on what actually works best for educating our children.”

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. This piece originally appeared in Salon and is used by permission.