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States and charter operators that received grant funds from the federal Charter Schools Program during the Obama administration only opened or expanded about half of the 1,570 schools they planned to launch, according to a watchdog investigation released Friday.
The report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General — focusing on more than $963 million in awards made from 2013 through 2016 — notes that while the law doesn’t require officials to track how many schools open after grants expire, reporting that information would make it easier to gauge the program’s effectiveness.
The report said that without such information, the department, Congress and the public “cannot reach conclusions on whether the [program] increased the number of high-quality charter schools in operation and taxpayers received a worthwhile return on their investments.”
The report comes as the department prepares to announce a new round of funding for applicants under a controversial revision of the program’s guidelines designed to increase transparency and diversity. Opponents say the new rule will limit growth.
The inspector general’s office recommends that the department monitor whether schools remain open after federal funding runs out and improve data collection. Department officials and charter school supporters agreed with some, but not all, of the findings.
Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said as the charter sector continues to grow, it is important for the department “to have high-quality data on how its grants are supporting it and to support the program in the future where the demand is the greatest.”
The department disagreed with the recommendation that it follow whether schools stay open for two years after grants expire, but said it has already taken steps to improve oversight of grants and hosts “office hours” to help grantees complete performance reports.
Both the department and Rees noted that the grant program substantially changed during the time period reviewed. Under No Child Left Behind, only states received charter grant funds. The Every Student Succeeds Act, which included changes that didn’t fully take effect until 2017, expanded the range of agencies and organizations eligible to receive funding, such as governors’ offices and school boards.
The report noted that as of March 2, 29 of the 94 grantees that received funds during the four-year period still had extensions to spend the money — which means more schools could still open. The report did not reflect that some grantees applied for additional funds to open more schools than originally planned, Rees said.
Critics of charter schools, meanwhile, said the findings back up their concerns about quality control. The Network for Public Education issued a 2020 report that concluded roughly 867,000 students were “displaced when their charter schools closed.”
Carol Burris, executive director of the group, said the Inspector General’s report “exposes the sloppy record-keeping, inaccurate reporting and exaggerated claims made by grantee states and charter management organizations.”
She applauded the Biden administration for its efforts to increase accountability.
The Inspector General noted that it did not set out to identify issues that may contribute to charter growth or closures. The department addressed the issue, noting that state caps on the number of new charters, limited access to facilities or grantees receiving fewer applications from operators than expected are important to consider.
The report, wrote Mark Washington, deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education,, “does not acknowledge national trends concerning barriers that have constrained charter school growth and expansion.”
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