"Honey, you have got to break up."
When a trusted member of your own family sits you down to tell you that you are in a bad relationship, it's only prudent to pay a little attention. And that is where John King's US Department of Education finds itself right now.
"Dude," says the USED's own office of the inspector general. "You have got to get this whole charter school thing under control. It is soaking you for money and you don't even know what the heck is going on."
The audit by USED's inspector general was meant to assess " the current and emerging risk that charter school relationships with charter management organizations (CMOs) and education management organizations pose to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), and the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) program objectives and evaluate the effectiveness of OESE, OSERS, and OII internal controls to mitigate the risk." The audit set out to look for internal controls-- any sorts of checks and balances and brakes on the USED-charter relationship. The findings were not good:
We determined that charter school relationships with CMOs posed a significant risk to Department program objectives.
You can read the whole sad jargon-soaked report if you like. The bottom line is that the audit found three major issues:
1) Insufficient controls between charters and charter management organizations, including (but not limited to) "conflict of interest, relate-party transactions and insufficient segregation of duties." The lack of controls constitutes a risk for fraud, waste and abuse, a risk of losing accountability for federal funds, and a risk that the charter schools are ignoring and violating federal rules, requirements and programs.
2) Insufficient controls within the department, meaning that USED has no useful knowledge or oversight of what charters are up to
3) Insufficient monitoring procedures to allow the department to even know if something hinky is going on.
In even fewer words, the USED does not have rules in place to discourage, spot or stop charter fraud, waste or abuse.
That is some hard tough love from a office within the education department.
Like many folks in a bad relationships, John King shows some awareness that maybe, somehow, something is wrong. Just this week John King suggested that Michigan wasn't exactly doing a bang-up job with its approach to closing schools and opening charters.
“I worry a lot about the charter sector in Michigan, which has very uneven performance,” King said. “There are a lot of schools that are doing poorly and charter authorizers do not seem to be taking the necessary actions to either improve performance or close those underperforming charters.”
Of course, the fact that King is traveling to Detroit in hopes of asking questions and finding out what's going on might actually help make the inspector general's point-- that the department has no controls in place for keeping tabs on how federal money is being spent and whether or not charters are actually doing anything useful. Though I suppose in the case of Detroit the recently-filed federal civil rights lawsuit about the horrifyingly bad state of affairs in Detroit might have clued him in. Or he could just read the Detroit Free Press for accounts of charter shenanigans.
And yet, like many folks in bad relationships, John King just can't quit charters. Also in recent news, we have the USED handing over $245 million to charter operators.
The lucky winners include Louisiana, where millions upon millions of tax dollars have vanished into the New Orleans charter swamp with no clear accounting for where they went. California is up for a $50 million grant, even though a 2015 study showed one in five charters closing, and a recent ACLU study shows many charters illegally restricting admissions. I suppose it's good that they did not--again-- shovel out some federal money to Ohio charters in the face of reports of widespread fraud and misbehavior. But at the same time, the new stack of money contains a proposed almost-seven million dollars to expand charters in Washington State-- where the charter school law has been declared unconstitutional. What exactly will the seven mill be spent on? Lobbying Olympia for a more charter-friendly-- and legal-- law?
So to recap-- the US Department of Education's own inspector general is telling them that they are in a bad, unsafe, unprotected relationship with the charter sector, that they have insufficient measures to watch for how tax dollars are spent, and they're going to hand over another quarter of a billion dollars anyway.
This, mind you, is the same federal department that has been intent on micro-managing every public school system in the country, and whose favorite funding approach has been to make states and districts fight for money by competing to show excellence and accountability in every program. And yet somehow, this same department ends up in some version of this conversation:
"You cannot hand over your paycheck to Chris McCharter again. You just can't."
"But Chris is so cute, and I'm soooo in love."
"Chris could be spending your money on hookers and drugs. It's happened before and you don't even know."
"I don't care what you say. I'm in lurv!"
It's a sad story, and it makes me long for a different story, a story from an alternate universe where the USED wakes up, stops enabling the Bad Charter Sector that it will never really reform, and falls in love with Public Education instead. Now that would be a story.