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Answer Sheet: Um, That’s Not What Warren Actually Said About Charter Schools

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during an event to introduce the Medicare for All Act of 2017 in September 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during an event to introduce the Medicare for All Act of 2017 in September 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

No, this isn’t about Wednesday night’s debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, which, incidentally, did not have a single substantive discussion about education. The moderators didn’t ask a single question about it, but then again, that has happened in most of the Democratic debates this year.

This post is about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) recently announced pre-K-12 school reform plan or, rather, the reaction to it. Last month, the presidential candidate unveiled her reform, which calls for spending hundreds of billions of dollars to improve public schools from prekindergarten through 12th grade — and getting America’s wealthiest individuals to pay for it.

Elizabeth Warren calls for billions of new dollars to reform pre-K-12 schools and fight privatization. Here’s how she plans to pay for it.

One of the features in that plan is ending federal funding for the U.S. Charter Schools Program. The program provides money to states to create new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. In recent years, the charter movement, which once enjoyed bipartisan support, has become controversial, with many Democrats pulling back from it even as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made expanding school “choice” her top priority.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate, also included the same feature in his expansive K-12 plan, which was released well before Warren’s. But she’s the one who became the target of tough criticism, which I wrote about here, at a time when she was rising in the polls and leading some of them.

This post looks at the problem with some of the criticism, which is being increasingly repeated as truth. It was written by Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor of education policy there. He was among the researchers consulted by Warren’s policy team as they drew up her education plan — but they had no involvement in, or awareness of, this commentary.

Carol Burris is the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, an advocacy group. A former award-winning school principal, she was the lead author of “Asleep at the Wheel,” the report about fraud in the charter school sector that was cited in Warren’s plan.

A report that detailed up to $1 billion in wasted federal funds on bad charter schools may have underestimated the problem

By Kevin Welner and Carol Burris

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) education plan was released a few weeks ago, one part drew strident criticism from some vested interests: her proposal to end the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). Since 1995, that program has disbursed over $4.1 billion taxpayer dollars to people eager to open new charter schools or expand existing charter schools.

A shocking amount of this money was squandered, according a 2019 report released by the nonprofit advocacy group, the Network for Public Education. In her plan, Warren cites that report, saying that “the federal government has wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools that never even opened, or opened and then closed because of mismanagement and other reasons."

The pushback to Warren from advocates of charter schools was immediate and intense. A flurry of fundraising emails from CharterPAC went out — all from individuals whose organizations had benefited from multimillion dollars grants from the CSP program.

These grievances were, as a rule, both overblown and misleading. A particularly powerful example was the commentary published in The Washington Post on Nov. 7, authored by Arthur Samuels, founder and chief executive officer of MESA, a small charter school in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.

In his commentary, Samuels reveals that he took a course from Warren when he was a law student: “best class I ever took at any level of school, ever.” He explains his disappointment that she, as a candidate for president, is not sufficiently supportive of charter schools. He speaks passionately about MESA, a school serving students who are “almost exclusively from low-income backgrounds.” MESA received a CSP grant of $625,000 when it opened, and he tells The Post’s readers that Warren’s plan would harm students like his.

But Samuels and other defenders of the CSP program are incorrect, and MESA school itself helps illustrate why. The commentary hinges on this claim: that Warren’s “education platform includes eliminating federal funding for charter schools.” In reality, Warren’s plan would greatly increase the federal funding provided to MESA, as well as all other charter and public schools.

To understand why, consider two other elements of Warren’s education plan. First, she proposes quadrupling Title I funding so that it rises to levels that have long been pledged by Washington politicians but never reached. Secondly, and similarly, she would more than double federal funding for students with special needs served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — again aiming for levels long promised but never fulfilled.

Now let’s take a look at MESA charter school. Based on MESA’s publicly available enrollment and funding figures, our estimate is that MESA would receive approximately $597,000 more in IDEA and Title I funding per year under the Warren plan — just slightly under the one-time CSP grant of $625,000. While the Warren plan for increasing funding includes no set-asides exclusively for charters, MESA’s students would nevertheless benefit.

Further, while Samuels and other voucher advocates frame the CSP program as benefiting small, community-based charter schools like MESA, a greatly disproportionate amount of the funding has been funneled to large Charter Management Organizations. The Success Academy charter chain in New York City, for example, has received $47,540,399 from CSP, even as it paid its CEO nearly $800,000 in 2016. The IDEA charter chain, whose CEO used the Warren plan for a charter PAC fundraising pitch, has been gifted $225,000,000 from CSP. And the KIPP chain, whose CEO also sent the same political PAC fundraiser, received $218,457,063.

MESA also illustrates two patterns involving charter schools across the United States. First, the school under-serves its neighborhood’s students facing the most challenges. While the Bushwick district (Geographic District 32) has 21 percent students designated English-language Learners, MESA enrolls 11 percent ELLs, according to the New York State Education Department website.

Similar patterns exist for students with disabilities (Bushwick: 22 percent; MESA: 15 percent), homeless students (Bushwick: 15 percent; MESA: 5 percent), and students eligible for subsidized lunch (Bushwick: 91 percent; MESA: 85 percent), the department’s website says. So while it is true that MESA serves students with very real needs, it also may have an adverse impact on other students in the neighborhood. If Bushwick underserves, for example, the community’s students who are homeless, this concentrates that population in the community’s other schools.

Samuels also asserts that MESA needs the CSP funding because it is not among the charter schools that really benefit from private, philanthropic donations. He writes, “Last year, MESA raised just under $45,000 privately.” What he doesn’t tell The Post’s readers is that over the two prior years MESA’s gifts exceeded $400,000, according to the school’s tax forms provided to the federal government. More important here is that CSP itself creates “haves” and “have nots.”

Third, MESA employs three executives — a CEO, a principal, and an assistant principal — with total compensation packages of over a half-million dollars as of 2017, for a school with only 466 students, the same forms show.

This brings us back to Warren’s point. Advocates for charter school expansion, while fiercely defending the CSP subsidies from federal taxpayers to support their expansion, have declined to seriously address the program’s waste — over one-third of its grantees have failed, according to “Asleep at the Wheel.” The federal Charter Schools Program, which began as a modest experiment in 1995, has turned into a cash cow for a number of organizations that lobby on behalf of charter schools, for real estate developers through its facilities program, and for the huge multimillion dollar charter chains that are constantly seeking to expand.

Warren’s proposal is to stop this waste while also providing greater support to all schools, both public and charter, as they do their best to provide learning opportunities to students in real need.

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Kevin G. Welner

NEPC director Kevin G. Welner is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, specializing in policy and law. He and Alex Molnar founded NEPC in 2010. Welner has authored or edited 12 books and more than 100 research articles and book chapters concerning education policy and law. His...

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 in the Rockville Centre School District in NY since 2000.  Prior to becoming a principal, she was a teacher at both the middle and high...