Open Letter to Sec. Duncan Regarding Federal Oversight of Charter School Expansion

June 8, 2015

The Honorable Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC  20202

Dear Mr. Secretary,

In 2010 and again in 2012, the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.

The Charter Schools Program, part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), offers federal funding to help establish, replicate and expand public charter schools across the country. Over the past twenty years, the federal government has spent a staggering $3.3 billion of taxpayer money to expand the number of charter schools in our communities.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), whose organizational members represent 7 million parents, community members, students, educators and school staff, believes that the public deserves more information on this program, its impacts and track record. 

The OIG audit found a significant lack of accountability both within the federal Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII), which administers the Charter Schools Program, and within the State Education Agencies (SEA), which disburse the majority of the federal funds. For example, the audit found:

  • The OII did not maintain records of individual charter schools funded through the SEA grants program (p. 14) and lacked internal controls and adequate training in fiscal and program monitoring (p. 13);
  • None of the SEAs examined in the audit adequately monitored charter schools receiving the SEA grants (p. 1), or monitored the state authorizing agencies charged with licensing the schools funded through the federal program.

The failure of the Office of Innovation and Improvement and the State Education Agencies to track what happened to millions of federal dollars spent to open charter schools had these inevitable results:

  • The OIG found 26 charter schools in just three states, which closed after being awarded about $7 million in SEA grant funds during the audit period (p 23). In some cases, these closed schools received SEA grant funds without ever opening to students (p 24).
  • In many of these cases, there is no indication of what happened to assets purchased with the SEA grant funds (p 24).

These findings were backed up by a recent report by the Center for Media and Democracy, which conducted further investigation into the program at both the federal and state levels.

We at AROS would add our own concerns to those raised by the OIG. For example, is the Department of Education tracking the impacts of the program on student outcomes? Nationally, charter schools are disproportionately located in communities of color. Why? And they serve disproportionately fewer English Language Learners and students with disabilities. How does the Department justify these disparities? Would the $3.3 billion that has been spent on this program over the last 20 years have been better spent strengthening our traditional public schools rather than creating new, privately operated ones?

Mr. Secretary, as Congress debates reauthorization of ESEA, the Department is calling for a 48% increase in funding for the Charter Schools Program, despite mounting evidence of significant fraud, waste and abuse within the charter sector, and despite the warnings of your own Office of Inspector General that federal charter start-up and expansion funds are not adequately monitored or accounted for.

AROS would like to respectfully ask the following:

  1. What specific steps has the Department of Education taken in response to the OIG audit of 2012 to ensure greater accountability, within both the federal Office of Improvement and Innovation and at the state level, for how the federal charter expansion funds are used?
  2. Will the Department of Education begin, with any new grants released to State Education Agencies, to maintain publicly accessible records of which schools receive these funds, the students served, and the operational and academic performance of each school?

In April, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools released a public letter to the leadership of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, calling for a moratorium on new federal funding for public charter schools. Our students and communities are not served when federal funding for education is distributed without accountability or transparency. We need to get it right. 

We look forward to receiving your response.

Sincerely,

Leigh Dingerson, interim coordinator and contact
202-288-2304 or Ldingerson@gmail.com

On behalf of The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools:

The American Federation of Teachers
The Alliance for Educational Justice
The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University
Center for Popular Democracy
Gamaliel
Journey for Justice Alliance
National Education Association
The National 
Opportunity to Learn Campaign
Service Employees International Union