The Federal Government Has Poured Millions into Failing Charter Schools in Louisiana

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By Jeff Bryant, a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm. Produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute

When Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama, said Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” he was no doubt referring in part to how the storm and its aftermath led to the spread of charter schools across the city.

But if he had looked more closely before making his remark (he eventually apologized for his poor word choice), he would have noticed some of the new charter schools being created in New Orleans were already failing.

The very first charter school created in the post-Katrina era to close was Free Academy, which shuttered in early 2009—well before Duncan made his remarks—due to financial problems, lack of academic progress, and disputes with the school’s for-profit management company.

After Free Academy closed, many of the students scrambling to find new schools likely ended up in the Crocker Arts & Technology School, another charter school, which opened in the fall in the same building. But that school proved to be a false promise too when, on a Thursday evening in early December, parents learned Crocker had to close, literally overnight, due to its unsafe building.

The century-old structure was close to collapse, a condition that existed no doubt when the school was Free Academy and when Crocker decided to occupy the building. Officials at both schools either didn’t know or knew but didn’t bother to warn parents their children were in an unsafe building.

Duncan should have been concerned about these failed charters not only because of the potential harm the schools posed to students but also because the federal government helped to fund the schools.

Government Funds for Failed Schools

In 2006, barely a year after Katrina’s devastation, Duncan’s predecessor Margaret Spellings awarded $24 million to Louisiana to create charter schools, primarily in New Orleans.

The grant came from the Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP), which provides grants to individual charter schools and charter school management companies, and for states to award to charter subgrantees. Louisiana used its 2006 grant to fund individual charters, mostly in New Orleans, including $283,847 awarded to Free Academy and $600,000 to Crocker.

After two more relocations, Crocker would eventually close for good in 2014.

Another reason Duncan should have been more inquisitive about how charter schools had used federal grant money in Louisiana is because his department, during the first year under his leadership, awarded the state yet another huge grant—this time totaling $25,576,222, mostly to bolster the state’s existing charters and start new ones in Baton Rouge.

Since Duncan’s tenure, the CSP’s annual budget has ballooned to $440 million, in the current budget year, and the total amount spent by the program since inception exceeds $4 billion.

But like those early grants to charters in post-Katrina New Orleans, much of that money has gone to schools that eventually closed—and some that never opened at all.

According to a recent report, up to $1 billion of the money given out nationwide by the CSP was wasted on charter schools that never opened, or opened and then closed because of fraud, poor performance, financial mismanagement, and other reasons. The report “Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride” was published by the Network for Public Education and written by this author and Carol Burris, NPE’s executive director.

In compiling our report, we found the grant program that provides federal dollars to state departments of education, or other approved “state entities,” is the largest of the CSP funding streams and presents some of the worst examples of federal tax dollars being wasted on charter schools that failed. Louisiana has one of the worst records for slipshod management of its federal grants.

In a follow-up to our report, Burris looked at the grants given to create and expand charter schools in Louisiana between 2006 and 2014. She found that of the 110 charters that received the money, at least 51 (46 percent) were closed. Some may have never opened at all, but because the Louisiana Education Department doesn’t provide a list of closed schools, that figure is unknown. The total amount of money given to those closed and never-opened schools is at least $23,819,839.00.

An ‘Illegal Experiment’ on Children

While the numbers alone are startling and a cause for concern, individual examples of charters in Louisiana that received CSP money and then closed throw into further doubt the prudence of using federal seed money to spread schools that open and close, repeatedly, and fund charter organizations that churn through districts and neighborhoods without any obvious regard for what parents and local officials want.

One of the examples I singled out from Burris’ research is Benjamin Mays Prep School in New Orleans, which received a $600,000 CSP grant. Mays Prep had long-standing academic issuesand persistent budget shortfalls. The school had to move to a different building in 2012 and then lost that location in 2014 when its charter wasn’t renewed and a different charter moving into the space refused to enroll the Mays students. The school closed officially in 2014.

Another New Orleans charter, Miller McCoy, received a $600,000 CSP grant but eventually closed in 2014 after “a long downward spiral,” according to a local news source. The charter school’s two founders left in 2012 under alleged ethics allegations, and the school had a series of unsuccessful leaders after that. An “F” academic rating from the state seemed to have been the final straw.

The school had promised to be equivalent to a prestigious all-male private prep school in New Orleans, only free. Its closure left the teachers and remaining students and families with “a sense of loss, sadness, a grieving for what could have been,” reported a different local news outlet.

Another New Orleans charter, Gentilly Terrace, received a $600,000 CSP grant. The school was operated by a charter management group, New Beginnings Schools Foundation, that was cited for being out of compliance with several federal laws, including misdirection of federal funds for Title I schools—­money earmarked for high-poverty students. New Beginnings also had chronic problems with employee turnover in its schools and non-transparent practice by its board of directors.

Gentilly Terrace closed in 2014 with a “D” rating from the state’s academics report card. Recently, the CEO of New Beginnings resigned amid allegations of falsifying public records and allowing one of its three remaining schools to engage in grade-fixing.

CSP grants that were awarded to schools in Baton Rouge often led to the same results.

When the Recovery School District that transformed New Orleans started taking over “low-performing” Baton Rouge schools in 2008, one of the first seven schools taken over and handed to charter operators was Glen Oaks Middle School. Glen Oaks received $772,750 from the CSP.

By 2013, the takeover effort was already “rebooting,” and Glen Oaks was closed, supposedly temporarily,for the 2014-15 school year in order to find a different charter management group. Students were told to transfer to a different school operated by a different charter but were presumably able to return to Glen Oaks the following year.

But instead of reopening as a middle school, Glen Oaks was occupied by three new charters: a kindergarten, an elementary school, and a different middle school operated by a different charter management company.

Glen Oaks closed officially in 2016, according to state reports, and by 2018, both the kindergarten and the elementary schools had moved elsewhere too.

Today, what remains inside Glen Oaks Middle School is a much smaller middle school under a different name. That school is currently rated “F” academically by the state, which recently recommended the school be handed over to yet another charter management group.

Some Louisiana charter school CSP grant recipients that have managed to stay open seem on less than firm ground.

Baton Rouge’s Tallulah Charter School, which was awarded a CSP grant of $75,000, was threatened with shutdown in 2018 for persistent low academic performance and testing errors.

What saved the school was an offer from an online learning charter school to move students to a blended curriculum that included more computer-based instruction. The online charter recently dropped its affiliation with an out-of-state for-profit company and changed its name. The school has a 54 percent graduation rate compared to the state’s 79 percent.

Parents in New Orleans who are sick of the instability that temporary charter schools have brought to their community are organizing to repeal the state law that legalized charters, calling the schools an “illegal experiment” on their children.

Widespread Violations of Federal Laws

These kinds of examples eventually drew the attention of the education department’s own Office of Inspector General to examine the agency’s oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program in 2016, after Duncan had resigned and John King became secretary.

The audit made recommendations for improvement on the oversight of federal grants given to charters that close, but it’s not at all clear how those recommendations were implemented under King’s leadership, or under Betsy DeVos, who took over as secretary in 2017.

In 2018, OIG published another examination of how states with charter schools that closed accounted for federal grant funds. This time, Louisiana was included in the audit because it was the state with the highest ratio of closed charter schools to total charter schools.

The audit found charter schools in Louisiana that received federal money and then closed likely had widespread violations of federal laws and regulations for closing out their grants, disposing of property purchased with federal funds, and ensuring student information and records had been protected and maintained.

In its comments included at the end of the report, the department did not explicitly agree or disagree with the findings but stated it “did not consider charter school closures to be a risk to federal funds” and that OIG’s recommendations “would be inconsistent with the federal role in education.” The department asked instead for “a single recommendation that recognizes the balance between federal and state responsibility for the oversight of charter schools.”

Recently, House Democrats proposed a substantial cut to CSP grants, declaring the education department has not been “a responsible steward” of taxpayer dollars. House members cited, as part of their rationale for the cuts, evidence of financial waste and mismanagement like those Burris and I found. And the Democrats directed the education department implement recommendations from the 2018 OIG report.

Among those recommendations are for the department to determine which states receiving charter school grants pose the most risk to federal funds and help those states develop and implement effective charter school closure procedures. Should the House bill pass, you can be sure Louisiana will be on that list.

But the legacy of the federal government’s charter school grants in Louisiana should not be understood just by the sheer waste of precious education funds, but also by the real human consequences of spreading makeshift charter programs that throw communities into confusion, distress, and a sense of betrayal. That’s probably something you won’t hear Arne Duncan apologize for.

To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by the Independent Media Institute.

Click here to read a selectionof Who Controls Our Schools? published on AlterNet, or here to access the complete text

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11 comments

  1. ambrit

    New Orleans has always had a two tier school system, the Public schools and the Catholic schools. The Catholic schools self selected for religious affiliation and financial ability. You have to pay for the Catholic school system. A set price for each student, plus uniforms and school supplies. That generally left the Public schools of New Orleans as the “Red Headed Stepchild” of the educational sphere. Just like the Charter and Magnet schools now do, the Catholic school system siphons off the “cream” of the juvenile crop.
    Phyl and her siblings were products of the Catholic school system of New Orleans. Each has tales of dysfunction, both personal, (the Nuns with their wooden “Knuckle Buster” rulers,) and systemic, (as in Phyl bringing her own lunch to school to avoid the dubious substances touted as the ‘School Lunch.’)
    At base, private schools of any provenance are exercises in snobbery and elitism. Resources are siphoned off from the Public schools and degrade their performance, which prompts more parents to ‘bite the bullet’ and pay for private schooling for their children. A vicious downward spiral results for the Public school system. Now that ‘things’ have become visibly bad for the Public schools, it seems that the operators of the Private schools have reverted to type and let greed be their guiding principle.
    The Neo-Liberal version of private schooling has quickly shown itself to be a failure. As the authors assert, it is high time to shut this ‘experiment’ down. Who knows? Maybe a reinvigorated Public school system will finally live up to it’s promise; an educated citizenry.
    However, the ever present cynic in me suspects that an educated citizenry is the last thing the present elites want. No wonder ‘they’ have pushed charter schools so strongly. We may have lost an entire generation of Louisiana’s children to ignorance. Some heritage to pin on the Charter school cadres.

    Reply
    1. John Zelnicker

      @ambrit
      May 18, 2019 at 2:47 am
      ——-

      Greetings, my NC friend. I hope you and Phyl are doing well.

      Great comment.

      “However, the ever present cynic in me suspects that an educated citizenry is the last thing the present elites want.”

      This is exactly right!

      The entire neoliberal establishment has worked for many years to turn the education system in this country, public and private, into a training ground for obedient, compliant worker bees. History, literature, and the rest of the humanities have been removed from the curriculum. Acquiescence to authority is taught as the primary virtue.

      It’s a damn shame.

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        Hi from Phyl and me John.
        Yes, it is a d— shame. I remember taking strange courses called ‘The Humanities’ and other self improving subjects. Speech and Debate, AP History, Real Civics, Literature, and other courses too esoteric to remember. Now, as you say, these remnants of the Enlightenment are dust, and the Discipline and Obedience required for the coming New Dark Age is enforced.
        Now all is tests and metrics. A narrow focus for the narrowing of the growing minds. when I took History or Literature, our tests were essay form. We had to convince the teacher that we understood the subject, often in detail.
        Now we must ward against transferring the methods that failed in the Charter School experiment to the Public School sphere.
        Be of good cheer John. We dinosaurs must hold ourselves up as examples of how good life could be for “ordinary” people.
        We embody Hope.

        Reply
        1. John Zelnicker

          @ambrit
          May 18, 2019 at 2:56 pm
          ——-

          I just sent the following link to NC for tomorrow’s Links.

          https://www.salon.com/2019/05/18/against-the-dictatorship-of-ignorance-in-the-age-of-donald-trump-part-1-of-2/

          It’s by Henry Giroux and, among other things, addresses the perversion of education that has occurred over the past 40 years or so.

          Yes, the lessons of the Enlightenment seem to have been lost. Education is geared towards creating worker bees who won’t even know how to challenge authority.

          When I was an undergraduate at the Wharton School, 1968-1972, we were required to take at least 25% of our credits in the humanities, even though we were working towards a degree in Economics.

          The high school I attended focused on critical thinking and analysis in every class. For the director of the school, this was the most important skill for students to acquire. The skills I learned have served me well for over 50 years.

          Keep the faith, ambrit. Peace.

          Reply
          1. ambrit

            Yes, Peace to us all.
            I remember having to take a foreign language in High School. Luckily for me, the main teacher there had studied in Madrid and set us examples from the likes of Lope de Vega and Cervantes in the original to “learn us some Spanish.”
            A far cry from the “Industrial Spanglish” that’s now common in the construction trades.
            When I went for my abortive career at the “Poison Ivy League” college back in the seventies, a foreign language was required.
            These ‘modern’ universities remind me of old fashioned Trades Schools now. I have nothing bad to say about Trades Schools in general, but must decry the modern penchant for pretending that these modern Trades Schools/Universities are giving their students a serious and well rounded education.
            It all looks to this cynical old Geezer as if there was a reversion to the older idea of a “well rounded” education being the province of the well to do going on in the modern educational debate. Credentialism only exacerbates the trend.

            Reply
    2. Jonathan Holland Becnel

      Guess where i went to school?

      An all male Catholic HS aka Jesuit.

      Time to blow the lid off this sucker!

      Surprised Naomi Kleins Shock n Awe isnt referenced.

      Oh and my lil sis geauxs to Dominican.

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        Oh yes. Phyl’s nephews went to Jesuit. The result was “The Puffy Chair.”
        Don’t ask me why, but since I went to a similar sort of High School in Miami, I keep riffing on the old Steely Dan song; “Show Biz Kids.”
        Keep the Faith.

        Reply
  2. Sound of the Suburbs

    This is the UK, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea.

    Let’s leave education to the market to kill off social mobility.

    The wealthiest parents will be able to afford the best education for their children.

    In the market the best stuff is the most expensive and those with no money don’t get anything.

    What education can you afford for your children?

    1) Top private school – over 30k a year
    2) Other private school – high schools fees
    3) Top state school – house prices in the catchment area
    4) The dump down the road that comes last in school league tables

    Liberals worry about selection on merit as they prefer selection by parental wealth.

    How are their children going to get anywhere otherwise?

    In the UK, I see Labour as the real Left and liberals as a new pretend Left.

    Reply
  3. Philip Morris

    Education is the most important thing a society can do for it’s children. Their future, and the future of the country depends on it. Leaders of the future will be the kids we educate today. We should be VERY careful in that regard.

    Reply
  4. J C Bennett

    Since I have not heard anything about it for a while — does anyone know whether or not Bill Clinton and Rahm Emanuel have given up on their joint campaign to destroy public education in the US?

    Reply

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