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Janresseger: DeVos’s Staff Blocked Researchers Trying to Investigate Federal Charter Schools Program

Writing this week for The WashingtonianRachel M. Cohen describes the responses of eighteen federal workers when she interviewed them about what it’s really like to work for the Trump administration.

Cohen quotes an anonymous staff person in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education, someone who reflects on Departmental priorities these days and her own particular concern: “I definitely get the sense that the appointees don’t feel many functions of our agency are necessary anymore. Words like ‘regulatory overreach’ and ‘burdensome regulations’ come up a lot, and while it’s true sometimes oversight is burdensome, and ensuring efficacy and quality can feel like overreach, we give out a lot of money—and if we don’t maintain some standard for those funds, then we’re not doing our job.”

Apparently the politically appointed leadership at the U.S. Department of Education wasn’t happy when, on March 8, 2019, the Network for Public Education (NPE) tried to investigate federal oversight over one area of departmental funding by submitting a Freedom of Information Act request for documentation of routine regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. Jeff Bryant is one of the researchers and writers of NPE’s new report, Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride.  In an article published this week at AlterNetBryant shares some simple research questions he submitted to the Department of Education and the outrageous response he received: “On March 15, I received a voicemail from an official in the public affairs division of the department asking me to call her back. The message started out nice enough but then veered toward criticism. ‘Apparently you have sent this request to multiple people,’ she said (emphasis original), ‘and that just creates havoc for everyone.’ When I immediately called her back, I explained I had merely sent my inquiry to the contacts provided on the relevant sections of the department’s website. ‘That’s understandable,’ she replied, but for ‘future reference’ I was told to send inquiries to ‘a director’—though I’m not sure who that is.  And I was told again my questions had ‘created havoc’ in the office but that department staff members were ‘working on it’ and would ‘take a few days.’ As of this writing, I’ve yet to receive any other replies.”  Perhaps Bryant sent his inquiry to the career staff listed on the Department’s website, but a politically appointed staff member exerted her power over the Department’s communications with the public.

Bryant supplies us with the innocuous enough request he sent on March 8, a set of routine questions that surely ought to have resulted in a clear answer from a functioning governmental department: “This is to inquire about the current grant application review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities. Specifically, in 2015, the Department published an ‘Overview of the 2015 CSP SEA Review Process.’ My questions: (1) Can you provide a similar document describing how the grant review process is currently being conducted for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities? (2) If not, can you briefly comment on how the grant review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities aligns with or varies from the Overview referenced above? (3) Regarding a ‘Dear Colleague‘ letter sent to State Education Agencies in 2015 emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars, was there any follow-up by the Charter Schools Program to ascertain how many SEAs complied with this request and what was the nature of the new systems and processes put into place by SEAs to provide for greater accountability?”

It is interesting to go back and read that 2015 “Dear Colleague” letter.  In the letter, two assistant general secretaries and an advisor to the program remind State Education Agencies (SEAs) of their role in helping the U.S. Department of Education to monitor the quality and fiscal responsibility of charter schools that had received federal money under the Charter Schools Program: “We write today to remind SEAs of your role in helping to ensure that Federal funds accessed by public charter schools are used for intended, appropriate purposes.  We also remind SEAs that the Department serves as an important resource to help with this important task… Although many charter schools are managed effectively and demonstrate promising results, the Department’s Office of Inspector General’s (OIG’s) recent semiannual reports to Congress have identified examples of conflicts of interest between charter schools and their management organizations, and examples of charter schools with problematic fiscal and management practices… SEAs should take steps to monitor and help correct poor management practices in charter schools.” Here are links to 20122016, and 2018 U.S. Department of Education OIG condemnations of the management of the federal Charter Schools Program.

A little more history is also helpful.  The 2015, “Dear Colleague” letter was released during a period when the U.S. Department of Education was involved in reviewing the award the Department of Education had recently made of $71 million to Ohio (the department’s largest Charter Schools Program SEA grant in 2015) after it had been pointed out by critics in Ohio that David Hansen, then the director of funding and oversight of charter schools at the Ohio Department of Education, had lied when he wrote the grant application by omitting the low ratings of an entire sector of so-called “dropout recovery” charter schools in Ohio and implying that Ohio had already tightened its charter school regulations when in fact the Legislature was only in the process of considering proposed legislation for slightly improved charter oversight.  In November of that year, the U.S. Department of Education was shamed into delaying the $71 million award to Ohio, pending further review.  (In September of 2016, the Department of Education finally released the $71 million grant, but labeled Ohio “at risk” following a request from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown for increased oversight of the $71 million grant to Ohio.)

Oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program matters for the communities and public school districts where the grants are awarded and for the children and families who will be affected by charter school expansion. And the amount of money in the federal awards to state education agencies and large charter school chains is significant. In its Asleep at the Wheel report, NPE reports that the federal Charter Schools Program, “was established in 1994 and over its 25-year existence, has funded as many as 40 percent of charter schools across the country… We estimate that approximately $4 billion federal tax dollars have been spent or allocated to start, replicate and expand charter schools.” “Hundreds of millions… have been awarded to charter schools that never opened or opened and then shut down.”

In his recent article, Jeff Bryant reminds us that poor management of the federal Charter Schools Program did not begin with Betsy DeVos: “It was under Arne Duncan’s watch that the federal charter grants program was greatly expanded, (and) states were required to lift caps on the number of charter schools in order to receive precious federal (Race to the Top) dollars… And most of the wanton charter fraud we detailed in our report that ran rampant during the Duncan years is now simply continuing under DeVos, with little to no explanation of why this is allowed to occur.” “This is not a partisan issue… Of course, any comparison between DeVos and Duncan can find some very big differences, but a constant throughout both administrations has been to ignore, wall-off, or obfuscate when confronted with any inquiry aimed at the federal government’s efforts to create and expand charter schools.” “It’s actually been endemic in the education policy world for years, particularly in how the federal government continues to hide its agenda to further privatize the nation’s public school system by creating and expanding charter schools.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...