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Answer Sheet: How Did This Charter School Get a Nearly $2 Million Federal Grant?

A recent federal audit had a bit of bad news for the U.S. Education Department’s Charter Schools Program (CSP), which has provided more than $2.5 billion in grants to help open or expand charter schools. The audit by the department’s Office of Inspector General found that the CSP office may not have had “reliable information needed to make informed decisions” about continuing funding for charter schools with program grants.

There was more in the audit, which you can read about here, but this post looks at a different problem facing the CSP: schools with highly problematic applications that win millions of dollars of federal money anyway.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated, some of them as for-profit entities, and they educate about 7 percent of U.S. schoolchildren. The 30-year-old charter sector has been riddled with financial and other scandals over the years, although supporters say that the problems these schools face are expected growing pains and that they offer families an important option to schools in publicly funded districts. Critics say that they are part of the movement to privatize public education and that some states have lax charter school laws that do not properly regulate them.

This post was written by Carol Burris, an award-winning former New York high school principal and now executive director of the advocacy group called Network for Public Education, which is an alliance of organizations that advocates for the improvement of public education and seeks legislative reform of charter schools. Burris has written previously on the charter school program for Answer Sheet (for example, here and here). She has chronicled how the program spent hundreds of millions of dollars on charter schools that never opened or closed not long after opening. Burris writes about the funding application of a charter school in Ohio, the Cincinnati Classical Academy, and says that her organization, along with a group of Ohio legislators and other organizations, have asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to rescind the school’s nearly $2 million CSP grant. I asked the school to comment and will add its response if I get one. I asked the Education Department about the letter, and it said it would not comment on it specifically. In response to an earlier query about the charter school program, a department said this in an email:

The U.S. Department of Education (Department) is committed to supporting state and local efforts to increase school diversity and reduce racial and socio-economic isolation in schools, including through the Charter School Program (CSP). There are multiple safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of CSP applications and funded grants. For example, all CSP applicants must provide attestations confirming the accuracy of information submitted in their application. False, fictitious, or fraudulent statements or claims may subject applicants to criminal, civil, or administrative penalties. Such safeguards are in place to help ensure charter schools serve communities well.

By Carol Burris

An invitation to fiction writing. That is how Mike Winerip described the federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant process in a 2012 New York Times story, a characterization based on his investigation of a New Jersey charter school, which, despite three failed attempts to open and an application full of “misrepresentations,” had secured a CSP grant.

This issues didn’t go away. The All Football Club of Lancaster, Pa., an unauthorized charter school with no community support, submitted an often-incoherent application and yet won $1.2 million in 2020. A school run by a for-profit operator immersed in self-dealings and a segregation academy turned charter school cashed in on a North Carolina grant.

But the prize for the most inventive story to secure a CSP grant may belong to the Cincinnati Classical Academy (CCA), a Hillsdale College member school, for securing a nearly $2 million grant. CCA, which prides itself on teaching virtue, asked for the grant on the basis of its claim that it was closing the achievement gap and serving disadvantaged students, never reporting that only 16 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged and that 2 percent are Black — a starkly different student body from the overwhelmingly disadvantaged and majority-Black Cincinnati Public School students, who, CCA says, it wants to save from poverty.

Cincinnati Classical Academy

Cincinnati Classical Academy is located on a cul-de-sac in a leafy residential suburb of Cincinnati called Reading. The school’s website features a motto and a coat of arms, and plays a video showing the school building with a cross atop a tower at the entrance as well as a large American flag. It currently runs from kindergarten through seventh grade but says it plans to add a grade each year until it becomes a full K-12 school.

It takes considerable digging on its website to realize that CCA is a charter school, not a tuition-free Christian private academy. Its headmaster’s message speaks of morals, virtue and “old-fashioned” methods. Pictures of the gymnasium show a large crucifix on the wall next to an American flag. In a photograph of a school hallway lined with posters depicting the school’s virtues, Mary and the infant Jesus from Botticelli’s “Madonna of the Magnificat” illustrates the virtue of humility. To illustrate gratitude, CCA shows a family praying before a meal.

Nearly all of the uniformed children featured on the website are White. There is no mention of a provision for free lunch on the school’s webpage, which features catered lunches students can purchase in full or a la carte.

Although CCA is only in its second year, it has the status of being a member school of Hillsdale College’s K-12 initiative, which entitles it to free curriculum, training and consultation from the small, nondenominational, conservative Christian college in Michigan. Hillsdale President Larry Arnn is an ally of former president Donald Trump as well as of Trump’s former education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and “distinguished fellow” Christopher Rufo, an activist who has fueled the culture wars.

Hillsdale provides support for CCA through its Barney Charter School Initiative, which began in 2010 with a half-million-dollar contribution from the Barney Family Foundation and which has opened a few dozen charter schools across the country. Hillsdale College’s mission is to maintain “by precept and example the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith,” while the mission of its K-12 charter schools includes a call for “moral virtue.” A Hillsdale K-12 civics and U.S. history curriculum released in 2021 praises conservative values, criticizes liberal ones and distorts civil rights history.

According to its 990 tax forms, the Barney Family Foundation gives to health and child-centered charities along with Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Heartland Institute, the State Policy Network, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Heritage Foundation, and other right-wing foundations and think tanks.

Stephen Barney, a trustee emeritus on the Hillsdale College Board, has been one of its most generous donors. Between 2010 and 2019, the Network for Public Education identified more than $4 million earmarked for Hillsdale from Barney’s foundation, excluding unlisted donations in 2011 and or donations before or after those years.

Despite Hillsdale College’s frequent boasts of rejecting federal money (and the federal regulations that come with it, including Title IV provisions), the college’s affiliated charter schools eagerly dip into the federal Charter School Program through state entitlement grants. To date, the Network for Public Education has identified more than $16.75 million given to Hillsdale charters for school start-ups or expansions.

The grant to CCA is the first given directly by the federal department to a Hillsdale-connected charter school.

The questionable narrative

Applicants for Charter Schools Program Developer Grants fill out extensive applications in making the case for why their schools deserve the funds. According to the Federal Register, which calls for applications, the first purpose of the CSP is to “expand opportunities for all students, particularly for children with disabilities, English learners, and other traditionally underserved students, to attend charter schools.”

However, CCA caters to the well-served in disproportionately high numbers. State records show that it had no English language learners in 2022-2023 when it applied. Students with disabilities were enrolled at less than half the rate of the Cincinnati Public Schools. More than 80 percent of the students in Cincinnati Public Schools were economically disadvantaged compared to fewer than 17 percent at CCA. Other charter schools in Hamilton County had no problem attracting economically disadvantaged students; their average rate topped 85 percent.

The only category in which CCA exceeds a demographic of Cincinnati Public Schools is White students. More than 82 percent of CCA students are White, compared to 20 percent in the public school district.

So what can a school like this do to get a grant intended for schools that serve underserved kids? It didn’t reveal itself.

CCA cited Cincinnati Public Schools demographics to make its case in its application even though it is located in the Reading Community City School District, which is whiter, wealthier and has better ratings. Then it provided another handful of schools within five miles for comparison, none of which are in Cincinnati Public Schools. The school also talked in its application about closing the achievement gap and serving diverse, underserved students even though its unrevealed Black student population (2.4 percent) is so tiny the state does not even give it a gap-closing measure.

But where the school best revealed itself is in its list of goals and objectives. Not only did it fail to share its lack of diversity, it included no goals or objectives to address it. The application does not discuss the need to increase the number of English language learners, homeless children, students with disabilities, or students who get free or reduced-price lunches to level the enormous gap between the school’s proportions and the greater Cincinnati area.

If achieved, the goals in the application prepared by Kentucky’s Adkins and Company and signed off by the president of the school’s governing board will not disrupt the status quo. CCA will be able to meet them and keep the federal dollars flowing for four years while maintaining the reality projected on its website — that it is a magnet for White, Christian conservative families to escape the area’s diverse schools.

The CSP review process

If you have ever applied for a mortgage, you remember the extraordinarily detailed evidence you must provide to support every claim. That is not the case when “free government money” for charter schools is at stake.

The curious lack of a demographic profile of the school’s students was never a concern for the reviewers. CCA received the highest score of all applicants — 101. One of the three reviewers gave the school a perfect score. You can find the application and the reviewers’ scoring here.

Reviewers, who are solicited from the charter school world, were satisfied that “comprehensive data is provided, revealing the underperformance of Cincinnati public schools and underscoring the necessity for a high-quality alternative that offers families a viable choice,” even though the school is not a part of Cincinnati Public Schools.

The reviewers bought the same old narrative — a high-poverty district is bad, so bring in a charter school. They parroted back what the applicant said and praised Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Program.

Inexplicably, given the CSP’s checkered history, the Education Department increased the maximum amount of Developer Grants per charter school from $1.5 million to $2 million this year, and CCA got nearly every penny of the limit: a grant for $1,991,846. Grants are usually for five years, but CCA had been open for a year when it applied, so it got a four-year grant. The average amount per year is $300,000 but the Education Department gave CCA nearly half a million dollars a year — on the basis of claims that even cursory checks on state data or a visit to the school’s website would show to be untrue.

Back in Ohio, public education advocacy groups are outraged but not surprised. Bill Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, told me that the charter industry in his state “has been rife with financial and academic fraud and corruption.” He also said the CCA’s application for a development grant, with its “deception and disingenuous information,” is “typical of the charter industry in Ohio.”

The Network for Public Education sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona protesting the grant and asking that it be rescinded. It was signed by Phillis’s coalition, along with U.S. Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio), five state legislators who represent the area, the Ohio PTA, both state teachers unions, the Cincinnati NAACP, and more than a dozen public education, civil rights, local teacher associations and advocacy groups.

Other 2023 CSP awardees are being challenged. The St. Louis Board of Education has passed a resolution protesting the more than $35 million CSP grant received by the billionaire-funded Opportunity Trust to open more charter schools in Missouri — nearly all of which will, because of state law, be located in St. Louis or Kansas City. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The group misrepresented its relationship with SLPS in its application to the U.S. Department of Education, the resolution states. The school board “does not have a working relationship with the Opportunity Trust, does not collaborate with the Opportunity Trust and has opposed efforts by the Opportunity Trust to enact legislation to divert district funds to charter schools,” it [the resolution] reads.”

CSP grant applications that have been misleading and deceptive have still been rewarded with millions of taxpayer dollars from CSP. Whether the source of the problem is the department’s process, a less-than-rigorous application, the reviewer selection process or faulty regulations, awards that are based on disingenuous claims and deceit do not serve children or taxpayers well.

Until something changes, the statement that applicants sign — “I am aware that any false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements or claims may subject me to criminal, civil, or administrative penalties. (U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 1001)” — should be enforced, and the secretary should use his authority to terminate the grant.

(Update: Clarifying Education Department response)


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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Carol C. Burris

Carol Corbett Burris became Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation in August 2015, after serving as principal of South Side High School...