April 8, 2022

Peter Greene: Feds Propose Change In Charter School Grant Regulations

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Peter Greene explains the proposed changes in the federal charter school grant program, and encourages you to make your voice heard. Reposted with permission. 

This is exactly the kind of boring policy wonk stuff that can make ordinary humans nod off. But it;’s worth paying attention to. It’s even worth giving the feds your two cents. I’ll tell you how at the end of this. First let me explain what’s happening.

The Charter Schools Program (CSP) is a federal grant program that gives charter schools money both for start-ups and expansions. It’s a big, beautiful federal tax dollar gravy train, and it’s been running for many years through many administrations. The first batch of granty largesse was disbursed in 1995; since then something like $4 Billion has been thrown at charters, with decidedly mixed results. A report from the Network for Public Education found that about 1 out of every 4 dollars ($1 billion) had been spent on fraud and waste, including schools that closed within a year as well as schools that never opened at all (spoiler alert: no, the taxpayers don’t get their money back when that happens). Despite all that, the gravy train is still running, this year to the tune of about $440 million.

But if we’re going to do this, couldn’t we at least institute a few rules for getting the grant money? That’s what the Biden administration is proposing right now, and we are all invited to offer our thoughts before the proposed rules are adapted and/or adopted.

The language of the proposal is about priorities–in other words, if you meet these certain guidelines, you score more points in the Give Me Some Grant Money contest– and application requirements. So let’s take a look at the proposed language and see what we’ve got, because some of this is good and some of it could be better. First, there are two proposed priorities.

Proposed Priority 1—Promoting High-Quality Educator- and Community-Centered Charter Schools to Support Underserved Students.

The proposal notes that although charters were envisioned as laboratories of education, where teachers could develop cool new ideas and, in collaboration with public schools, send those ideas out to do good for students everywhere, the reality is that in some communities, “teachers, parents, and community leaders have expressed concerns about not being included as active participants in charter school decision-making.” Modern charters have ended up, in many cases, being not so much educator or community centered as owners-of-the-business centered.
So to score grant-winning points in this priority, charters would have to do some of the following.
Involve “meaningful and ongoing engagement” with current and former educators in founding, governance, school-level decisions about curriculum and instruction, and day-to-day operations. This would be a markedly different model than that used by profiteering charters that are built on models for “extracting value” rather than educating students.
Use a community-centered approach that involves starting with a community needs assessment and continues with regular engagement with the community. Different from those charters operated at a distance by boards hundreds of miles away.
For modern charters, this may be an issue. While some charters are very much engaged with their communities and educators, many are simply business operations.

Proposed Priority 2—Charter School and Traditional Public School or District Collaborations That Benefit Students and Families

This again harkens back to the original concept of charters as partners and collaborators in a public ed system, a vision that has all but vanished in favor of a model that says charters will “help” public schools by spurring them on with market-based competition. That competitive model forbids collaboration; many charter organizations keep their materials as proprietary trade secrets, even requiring employees to sign non-disclosure agreements to protect their “trade secrets.” This is completely contrary to a notion of charters as laboratories of education.
So under the proposal, a charter that wanted to score grant-winning points would have to do some version of teamwork, as in
Propose a collaboration with at least one traditional public school or traditional school district. That collaboration could include curricular or instructional resources, professional development, or other practices that could benefit students. In other words, team up with a public school in ways that would make both schools better.
Does that sound like a hard thing to object to? Just watch– charter school fans are already clearing their throats, warming up for songs of how public schools are mean to them and also, they should be allowed to guard the trade secrets that make them successful. The whole modern charter universe has competition hard-wired into its dna; there is no logical reason for this to be so (unless you think the real point of charters is to allow entrepreneurs to launch successful education flavored businesses), but just watch and see.
Proposed application requirements
The proposal addresses the issue of “non-profit” charter schools that operate as fronts for for-profit operations.

We reiterate that a charter school is, by definition, “a public school that . . . is operated under public supervision and direction,” and for-profit entities are ineligible to receive funding as a CSP project grantee or subgrantee. It is also a violation of CSP requirements for a grantee or subgrantee to relinquish full or substantial control of the charter school (and, thereby, the CSP project) to a for-profit management organization or other for-profit entity because, among other things, a grantee or subgrantee receiving CSP funds must establish and maintain proper internal controls and directly administer or supervise the administration of the project.

And just in case that’s not clear enough:
Some examples of impermissible delegations of administrative control include situations in which the EMO controls all or a substantial portion of grant or subgrant funds and expenditures, including making programmatic decisions (also referred to as “sweeps contracts”); the EMO employs the school principal and a large proportion of the teachers; or the EMO makes decisions about curricula and instructional practices.
This is really important. Politicians have long slunk around the issue of charter schools by saying, “Well, of course, for profit charters shouldn’t be allowed” while ignoring charters that are non-profit in name only (looking at you, Clinton 2016). The industry has become quite adept at using non-profit charter schools to generate profits, and all of these arrangements have the same problem as a straight-up for profit charter–the interests of the people making a profit are in direct opposition to the interests of the students. IOW, the less money I spend on those students, the more money I get to pocket. This absolutely needs to be stopped.
Another proposed requirement is that folks who want the grant money to help launch a new charter school must provide a community impact report that shows there’s demand for the school and that the school would “serve the interests and meet the needs” of students, families, and the community from which the students will be drawn. That includes showing a plan for making the charter school demographics comparable to those of the community being served. In other words, no segregation academies. And “robust” community engagement plan for creating and maintaining strong partnerships. Charter schools that want this grant money cannot keep producing charters that are done to the community rather than with it.
There are also considerable reporting requirements for any for-profit entity that the charter intends to hire.
For the CSP grants that are given to states (who in turn dole money out within their own boundaries) these same requirements are in place. The states must also provide detailed information about how they will award the grants, including how expenditures will be monitored and judged.
Other things
The proposal talks a lot about diversity that aims at racial and socio-economic diversity, for instance, in requiring charters to match the make-up of their community. But there’s not much about students with special needs or English language learners; these are both categories that many charters deliberately under-serve compared to the public schools in the same communities.
There’s still no auditing mechanism for applications–in other words, nobody is checking to see if the grant application matches reality.
It also seems reasonable to ask for specific caps on grants to schools that haven’t been launched yet. One of the big wastes in previous granting has been giving money to schools that never actually opened.
Speak Up!
Offering your two cents is the easiest thing in the world (Well, not the easiest–but pretty damn easy). On the government website that I’m linking right here, you can find a copy of the full proposal. Up and to the right is a blue button that says “comment,” which you just click on and there you go. There’s a guide in case you want some “how to” tips. You can comment as an individual or as a group representative. You can even comment anonymously.
Do not be intimidated. One of the comments currently up at the sites say, in total, “Hi hello I believe this is an important topic to discuss!”
And here’s the thing. The charter industry does not want this, and they are already mustering troops to flood these comments with tales of how this will hurt the children and cripple their good work and be a terrible awful no good very bad thing, even though these rules boil down to a simple message–
Maybe charter schools should partner with communities and other people interested in education instead of partnering with people whose main interest is making money.
So tell the feds that. Make your voice heard. Help the government make one tiny step toward the kind of charter function and accountability that we always should have had.
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