By Carol Anne Spreen, New York University
Last week, the US Department of Education attempted to suspend an employee for releasing Secretary of Education DeVos’ education budget to the Washington Post and to the Office of Special Counsel due to what the whistleblower deemed “inaccurate, misleading and dishonest” information. According to the original Washington Post article, the “Trump administration was seeking in its 2018 budget proposal to cut in half funding for college work-study programs, end public-service loan forgiveness and cut hundreds of millions of dollars that public schools could use for mental health, advanced course work and other services. The administration wanted to channel part of the savings into school choice, its stated top priority.”
Dramatic cuts proposed whilst teacher strike against austerity
Unlike every other major OECD country, the US Education Secretary has repeatedly called for dramatic cuts each year in her proposed budget. The 2020 budget called for eliminating billions of dollars in K-12 programs: from professional development for teachers and principals, to after school programming, to mental health services, and even STEM education. Luckily, the Democratic House has resisted DeVos’ proposals and actually increased funding for many programs on the cutting board. According to Schneider:
- In the FY2018 proposed education budget, DeVos hoped to cut funding totaling $5.1 billion. Instead, Congress cut two programs totaling $264.6 million. However, in FY2018, Congress increased funding by $35.2 million to programs DeVos wanted eliminated. Thus, her net elimination “savings” for FY2018 was $229.4 million.
- In FY2019, DeVos proposed eliminating programs to the tune of $5.9 billion. Most were from her FY2018 elimination wish list, and a handful were added.
- She hoped to eliminate Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants for a “savings” of $400 million; instead, Congress almost tripled the program’s FY2019 federal funding to $1.17 billion.
- Devos’s FY2020 elimination wish list totals $6.7 billion. (One reason her proposed “savings” amount increases from year is that Congress opposes her elimination recommendations and instead increased funding for most programs on the list.
Incredibly the Secretary’s proposed cuts come amidst the largest wave of teacher strikes in decades, and this year has proven to be a watershed year for teacher struggles against austerity and private interests in U.S. schools. Beginning with the February 22 walkout of West Virginia educators, an unprecedented wave of teachers’ strikes swept through Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina. Following the “red state” strikes, labor struggles continued across the West, with strikes in Washington state, Denver, CO and Los Angeles, and Oakland, California. Teachers have cited the lack of resources, low salaries and the spread of charter schools as some of the challenges they face.
Public funds are used to privatize
Secretary DeVos and Donald Trump believe that education should be a marketplace where each parent competes for “the best deal” for their own child. Their policies are an attack on public schools, diverting billions to charter schools, voucher programs, private schools and online virtual schools all competing for children and tax dollars. They claim that private companies backed by money from taxpayer dollars with minimal oversight, will create better schools and better serve students.
These ideas are not innovative—they have been gaining resonance in the US for decades from Democrats and Republican’s alike. Despite charter schools selectively enrolling students, concentrating instruction on teaching to the test, and pushing out students who pose the most challenging academic and behavior problems, these schools still do not out-perform public schools. Instead of expanding the number of charter schools, governments should ensure families have access to quality public schools that are adequately resourced to serve the students in their communities. Integrating neighborhoods, fully funding public schools, lowering class size, and supporting teachers will increase the achievement of all students. What we have seen in states that embrace corporate reform are parallel school systems that do not serve all students well and squander taxpayers' dollars. In “choice” and charter states like Florida, Arizona and Nevada, conflicts of interest and fraud are rampant as laws for profiteering have been designed for private investors not children. All the while much needed dollars are drained from the public schools that 90% of American children attend.
Despite the damning evidence, the current Administration’s policies have been clear – from the “Choices in Education Act” to the creation of “Education Savings Accounts” the goal is to divert public school funding to private entities and create an education marketplace. The 2017 H.R.610 bill, “ Choices in Education Act of 2017,” was an attempt to repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. According to HuffPost education analyst Singer, the bill was an attempt to authorize states to use federal block grants to fund education vouchers, and severely cut back on federal support for public education.
Voucher-like schemes bleed public schools of essential funds
Through HR 610 and subsequent proposals the Administration has repeatedly attempted to establish education voucher programs, through which states would distribute block grant funds to local educational agencies (LEAs) based on the number of eligible children within each LEA's geographical area. From these amounts, the LEA would distribute funds to parents who elect to enroll their child in a private school or to home-school their child. In order to receive a block grant, states would have to comply with education voucher program requirements and make it lawful for parents to elect to enroll their child in a private elementary or secondary school in the state or to home-school their child.
Similarly, “Education Savings Accounts” (ESAs) are another voucher-like scheme put forward by the Administration that attempts to redirect public money to private, unaccountable education businesses, homeschoolers, and religious institutions. With growing scrutiny privatization advocates are creating these programs because school vouchers are increasingly unpopular and because these programs are a way around prohibitions against using public dollars for religious schools. But just like charters and vouchers, ESA’s bleed public schools of essential funds and do little to improve education options for families. Importantly, these attempted cuts to public schools and deregulation of standards and guidelines have been accompanied by an increase of millions in funding for charter and choice legislation.
Charter schools: a waste of money
Today, about 6 percent of U.S. schoolchildren attend charter schools, with 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico having laws permitting them. Some states have only a few charters while others have many. California has the most charter schools and the most charter students; in Los Angeles, 20 percent of children attend such schools. In the District, almost half of the city’s schoolchildren go to charter schools.  The federal government conducted the last major analysis of its Charter Schools Program in 2015, when it said the program had provided $3.3 billion since its inception to fund the creation, replication and expansion of charters.  Under the Trump Administration and with the increased public scrutiny, the department has not updated the list of schools that have received grants.
Charter promoters claim that charters are superior to public schools, but increasingly data show that they don’t outperform public schools  and there has been a tremendous amount of wastage. New evidence trickles in. We know that the privatization of public education, now disguised in many forms, has serious negative consequences for students, parents, and educators and taxpayers. The Network for Public Education (NPE) prepared a thirteen-point question/answer toolkit to expose the lies and distortions of charter school, voucher, and tax credit advocates. According to Singer, investigations of charter school operations in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, and elsewhere “have found numerous cases where charters used taxpayer money to procure school buildings, supplies, and equipment that they retained ownership of, even if the school closed. In most states, charter schools are exempt from most state and local laws, rules, regulations, and policies governing public and private schools, including those related to personnel and students.In legal proceedings in California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania charter school supporters have used private legal status to evade federal and state statutory requirements that apply to public entities.”
According to the Washington Post, as of 2019 the U.S. government has wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools that never opened, or opened and then closed because of mismanagement and other reasons, according to a report from an education advocacy group. A 2019 study by the Network for Public Education (NPE) Burris and Bryant estimated that program funding “has grown to well over $4 billion” and that up to one-fourth of that has been wasted. Their investigation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) found a troubling pattern of insufficient applicant review, contradictions between information provided by applicants and available public data, the gifting of funds to schools with inadequate financial and governance plans, a push-out of large grants to the states with little supervision by the department, and the waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. According to the authors, Secretary DeVos’ home state of Michigan received millions in charter school funding for schools that never even opened and the Inspector General found “waste, fraud, and abuse due to the frequency of school closures in the charter school program”. In total, $20,272,078 was awarded to defunct Michigan charter schools. And yet, in 2018 the DOE awarded the State of Michigan an additional $47,222,222 in charter funding.
In excerpts from an “ Open Letter to DeVos” NPE study authors Burris and Ravitch describe the charter wastage in the CSP program:
… in all of these states, far more charter schools have failed than just those that received federal SEA funds. In the case of Ohio, the list of closed charters (293) is nearly equal to the number of schools that are presently open (310). ….Louisiana charter schools received disproportionately large grants, and yet almost half failed. One hundred ten charter schools received funding through the CSP SEA program and 46 percent are not in operation. The total amount given to the 52 charters that failed was $23,819,839…..In California, 38 percent of schools that received grant funds through the CSP SEA program during those six years closed or never opened. This represents $103,467,332 of waste…. Finally, 184 Florida schools (36.6 percent) that received CSP grants never opened or closed. $34,781,736 federal tax dollars were given to those schools.
Across the US a growing number of civil rights organizations have called for a moratorium on new charter schools, including the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom (D), has formed a task force to review the impact that charter schools have on traditional public school districts amid a growing backlash against unfettered charter expansion in some parts of the country.
Charter schools continue to proliferate even though there is increasing evidence the public’s money is not being well spent. Rather than creating better quality schools, communities are getting more low-performing schools that have more opportunities to hide how taxpayer dollars are being spent. The flood of poor performing charters and the cost to taxpayers will only get worse until we get to the bottom of why this is happening and insist on transparency.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.