Truthdig! March 29, 2019
A new report issued by the Network for Public Education provides a detailed accounting of how charter schools have scammed the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) for up to $1 billion in wasted grant money that went to charters that never opened or opened for only brief periods of time before being shut down for mismanagement, poor performance, lack of enrollment, or fraud. The report also found many of the charters receiving grant awards that managed to stay open fall far short of the grant program’s avowed mission to create “high-quality” schools for disadvantaged students.
President Trump’s 2020 budget blueprint proposes increasing funding for the charter grant program by 13.6 percent, from $440 to $500 million, and education secretary Betsy DeVos praised this increase as a step forward for “education freedom.” But the report finds that increasing federal funds for this program would mostly continue to perpetuate academic fraud.
Of the schools awarded grants directly from the department between 2009 and 2016, nearly one in four either never opened or shut their doors. The federal program’s own analysis from 2006 to 2014 of its direct and state pass-through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.
Since then, the federal program has continued to award charters with grant money, increasing the total amount awarded to over $4 billion. Should the department’s own 2015 study finding hold, that one in three of the schools awarded grants had closed, never opened, or were not yet opened, the likely amount of money scammed by bogus charter operators tops $1 billion. In California alone, the state with the most charter schools, the failure rate for federal grant-awarded charters was 39 percent. Of the 306 schools that received CSP money but are not open, 75 are “ghost” schools—that is, they received money but never began.
As a coauthor of the report, along with Carol Burris, the executive director of NPE, I found an astonishing array of charter operators who ripped off American taxpayers with impunity, and generally suffered no adverse consequences for their acts. In fact, many are still actively involved in the scam. The scams varied from the brazenly open—such as the Michigan charter that isn’t a charter at all, it’s a Baptist church—to the artfully deceptive—like the Hawaii charter that received a grant in 2016 and still hasn’t opened, doesn’t have a location, and its charter hasn’t even been approved.
But perhaps my favorite scam artist to take advantage of the federal charter grant program was a Delaware company.
Anatomy of a Scam
In 2013, Innovative Schools Development Corporation applied for and received a three-year start-up grant eventually totaling $525,000 to open Delaware Met Charter School in Wilmington, DE. The school’s grant application promised to create an “Expeditionary Learning (EL) charter” to “maximize learning” for “elementary-aged Hispanic Latino English Language Learners in a high poverty community.” The school claimed to “be able to cater to each students’ [sic] career goals by personalizing their education,” a local reporter gushed. “The model is called ‘Big Picture Learning,’ and for lack of a better analogy, it’s kind of like Build-A-Bear for a high school education.”
The school didn’t open until August of 2015, but the company was already at work getting more grants from CSP.
In 2015, Innovative Schools applied for and received a three-year grant totaling $600,000 to support the Early College High School charter schools at Delaware State University in Dover, Delaware. The school would focus on “the development of college-ready students through an inquiry and project-based learning environment that engages students with a dynamic, rigorous STEM curriculum … to serve a diverse student population, focusing recruitment on first-generation college-bound students from low-income families.”
Then in 2016, Innovative Schools applied for and received a three-year federal grant totaling $609,000 to open the Delaware STEM Academy charter school. The school promised in its application to enroll 250 students for 9th and 10th grade in September 2016 and to add 150 students each year for 9th grade thereafter from the high-needs student populations in the Wilmington and New Castle County area of Delaware.
In the meantime, while the company was applying for and receiving grant money from the federal government, no one seemed to notice that its schools were quickly failing. ...
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