Charter schools are schools that are run with varying levels of autonomy from laws, rules, and regulations that apply to traditional public schools and are granted a charter by either a government entity of some kind (in the U.S., this is either a state-level education authority, a public higher education institution, or a local school district) or a private entity granted charter authorization power by a state or local government entity. In recent decades, charter schools have opened en masse in many U.S. states.
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a Wisconsin-based progressive watchdog group, recently conducted research of both a federal program designed to provide funding to charter schools, and they released their report on their findings last month. For supporters of public education and American taxpayers, the findings are not good at all.
At the federal level, there is a little-known federal government program that provides taxpayer-funded grants to charter schools, called the Charter Schools Program State Educational Agencies (CSP SEA). Out of a total of over $3.7 billion in federal funds given out to charter schools since 1995, over $3 billion of that has been given out via the CSP SEA program. Federal charter school grant programs operate with very little accountability or transparency. In fact, the federal government has passed off the primary responsibility of accountability for federal charter school grants to the states, which, in turn, have passed off responsibility for the federal grants to charter school authorizers, some of which are public entities and some of which are private entities. Additionally, there wasn’t anything resembling a public list of charter schools that received CSP SEA funds until CMD repeatedly asked for the federal government to give them a list of such charter schools.
In addition, CMD researched charter school practices in eleven states (California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, New York, Utah, Wisconsin, and Indiana), as well as the District of Columbia. Here’s how federal funding in those jurisdictions was wasted:
- In California, home to one-fifth of the nation’s charter school students, a total of 13 charter schools closed after receiving a total of over $4.7 million in federal grants.
- In Indiana, two charter schools that received a total of over $1.4 million in federal grants were closed due to poor student performance, one charter school received a $702,000 federal grant before becoming a private religious school, one charter school that never opened was awarded a $193,000 federal grant, and one charter school that has yet to open was awarded $193,000 federal grant.
- In Michigan, which provided CMD with the least amount of information regarding charter school funds, nearly $1.75 million in federal grants was paid out to 21 “ghost schools”, or charter schools that never opened.
- In Ohio, a total of over $4.6 million in federal grants was awarded to a total of 19 charter schools that either closed or never opened.
- In New York, a nearly $200,000 net discrepancy in 2011-2012 and an over $300,000 net discrepancy in 2012-2013 existed between New York state records on federal charter school grants and federal records on federal charter school grants awarded to New York charter schools.
- In Texas, a $600,000 federal grant was awarded to a charter school created by the founder of a religious education association.
- In Utah, the state hasn’t accepted any federal grants for expanding or replicating charter schools, although the state has spent millions in state taxpayer money on charter schools.
- In Arizona, the federal government has granted roughly $69 million in federal funds for charter schools since 2009, and, from mid-2010 to mid-2014, more than 100 Arizona charter schools closed their doors.
- In Colorado, the federal government has awarded up to $81 million in federal grants for charter schools. More than a dozen charter schools have closed in Colorado.
- In Florida, the federal government awarded the state up to $104 million in federal charter school grants to the state in 2011. Since Florida authorized charter schools over a decade ago, more than 120 charter schools have closed down.
- In Wisconsin, a total of over $2.5 million in federal grants were awarded to a total of 10 charter schools that closed.
- In the District of Columbia, where charter schools operate a short distance away from the U.S. Department of Education headquarters, the federal district’s charter school authorizer has landed a total of over $37 million in federal charter school grants since 2010, despite the fact that, up until 2013, the federal district saw 30 charter schools close their doors.
That’s just the waste of federal taxpayer dollars on charter schools. There are many more problems with charter schools and agencies responsible for authorizing and regulating them. While problems with charter schools and their regulation vary from state to state, they include the following:
- lack of government oversight and transparency
- financial mismanagement
- charter school supporters getting into positions of government power over charter schools
- refusing to respond to open records requests in a timely manner
- poor academic results and learning conditions
- low enrollment numbers
- at least in California, unsafe charter school buildings
- misreporting charter school data, such as enrollment figures, to governmental authorities
- charter schools violating laws, rules, regulations, and their charters
- at least in Indiana, racial segregation
- in Michigan, criminal activity, including felony fraud and tax evasion, by charter school operators
- religious schools operating as charter schools and receiving taxpayer funding for charter schools
- for-profit companies running charter schools
- charter schools that closed or never opened receiving taxpayer funding
- in Ohio, scrubbing performance data of online charter schools
- charter school operators having undue political influence over regulators
- in Colorado, sexual misconduct
- in Colorado, at least one charter school operator not following multiple federal and state employment laws
- state legislators and executives advocating for charter schools and implementing pro-charter school legislation
- lack of efforts by regulators and authorizers to ensure that charter schools are non-religious in nature
- taxpayer money that should go to traditional public schools going to charter schools instead
While CMD has recommended much stronger accountability measures for charter schools, I think that the problems that are inherent with charter schools are too serious to justify their continuation, and I support completely abolishing charter schools and giving the taxpayer money that would otherwise go to charter schools to traditional public schools instead.