Between 2006 and 2014, the federal government gave the state of Iowa millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants to open 11 new charter schools. Ten of them promptly failed, after burning through more than $3.66 million of taxpayers’ money.
During the same period, Kansas received $8.9 million in federal grants to finance 29 new charter schools. Twenty-two of those schools — 76% — closed or never opened for even a day, wasting almost $6.4 million.
Georgia received 140 federal grants for charter schools, with more than half the schools closing, at a cost of $23 million. Delaware’s federally funded charter schools had a nearly equal attrition rate — eight out of 14, a loss of $3.6 million.
These are just a few of the jaw-dropping findings in a new report from the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group started by Diane Ravitch and other educators to support public schools and oppose efforts to privatize education (tinyurl.com/npe-report).
During the eight years for which data on these federal grants is available, more than $504 million — 28% of the total grant money given out — went to schools that never opened or have already closed.
And the actual amount of federal money wasted on the government’s Charter Schools Program is probably much worse. That’s because, during the first 10 years of the 25-year program, from 1995 to 2005, the Department of Education didn’t bother to track how the grant money was spent at all.
But by applying the 37% failure rate of schools in the publicly available data to the total expenditures of $4.1 billion over the life of the program, it’s reasonable to infer that approximately $1.17 billion has been wasted since the program was launched, the report says.
Some states used the money more effectively than others. New York had both a large number of grantees (233) and a low failure rate (10%). But among those six states with failure rates of 10% or less, most had very few grantees: Wyoming had one, Maine had two, Oklahoma had four and New Hampshire had 23 federally funded charter school grants.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s failure rate topped 44%, wasting $21 million. Failure rates in Florida and California matched the national rate of 37%, and the amount wasted in those states was colossal: $34.2 million in Florida and nearly $103 million in California. [Opinion editor’s note: In Minnesota, according to the report, there were 29 grantees and the failure rate was 26%, at a cost of $9.8 million spent on closed charters.]
The report places much of the blame for this waste of taxpayer money on the Department of Education’s practice of awarding grants to states with few rules and virtually no accountability. Often, it says, grants were “doled out to individuals who had no credentials or experience to open up a new school.”
The report also identifies a “pattern” of charter school operators funneling money from grants to their own personal accounts, buying expensive equipment that may have been put to personal use, and paying for “for-profit consulting and education management organizations.” It concludes that, due to these practices, the charter school grant program “has become a magnet for grifters, consultants, and charter entrepreneurs who see an easy way to cash-in.”
Calling the continuing waste from the federal government’s Charter Schools Program “nothing short of a national scandal,” the Network for Public Education urges Congress to “end appropriations for new charter school grants in the upcoming budget” and eventually shut down the entire program, once existing grants have been depleted.
If the nation has learned anything from this experience, that’s what will happen.
Jeff Bryant is chief correspondent for Our Schools, an education project of the Independent Media Institute. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and was distributed by Tribune News Service.