Making public education more accountable has been the solemn pledge of government officials for years, including the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Yet that same level of accountability doesn't seem to apply to the fastest growing sector of K-12 education – charter schools.
That has to stop, says a coalition of labor, community, and public education advocacy organizations. The coalition, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, has written a letter to Secretary Duncan raising concerns about his department's continued funding of charter schools – $1.7 billion in grants since 2009, according to an article in The Washington Post – while providing little to no oversight over what schools did with the money.
The office overseeing the federal outlays doesn't keep a full record of the individual schools that received the money, the letter states, 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 recent 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.
As a basis for its concerns, AROS draws from a study by the department's inspector general and a recent report published by the Center for Media and Democracy which both warn that taxpayer money meant for charter schools is generally being sent into a black hole.
The 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, including lack of monitoring both from the department and the state agencies entrusted to track charter school results.
Audits carried out in just three states, for instance, found 26 charter schools that closed after being awarded about $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.
The CMD report found, "The federal government has spent a staggering sum, $3.3 billion, of taxpayer money creating and expanding the charter school industry over the past two decades, but it has done so without requiring the most basic transparency in who ultimately receives the funds and what those tax dollars are being used for."
In documents obtained from a total of 33 Freedom of Information Act requests, CMD researchers found, "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."
Given these revelations, authors of the AROS letter want to know what specific steps has the Department of Education taken to ensure greater accountability.
According to an official from the Department of Education, quoted in The Post story linked above, “We weren’t holding states responsible for monitoring these programs.”
The official claims that the federal government has made efforts to "make standards clear," but standards alone are not what are in order when there are no mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement. Although the department now appears to at least get the names of charter schools that receive federal funds, states are still 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," the AROS concludes.
The AROS letter joins a growing chorus of voices calling for intervention into the generally unregulated charter school industry.
Writing for Al Jazeera America, Century Foundation fellow Amy Dean also calls for a moratorium on charter schools. "It is time lawmakers freeze their growth," she writes, and provides numerous "precedents for a moratorium," including Philadelphia, Chicago, Connecticut, and Delaware.
Dean recounts mounting evidence that 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 on the basis of race, language, and ability.
"Chicago and Philadelphia provide good examples for setting moratoriums on charter schools," she notes, "but the freeze has been limited in both cities" due to weak local governance and strong pressures from the charter school industry to increase its expansion.
"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."