The federal government has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on charter schools that never opened or later closed, an anti-charter group wrote in a recent report.
The wasted money — in Idaho and beyond — tells only part of the story. And the Network for Public Education report twice uses Idaho to illustrate the feds’ lax management of the $4 billion Charter Schools Program.
“Tax dollars that went to charter schools that never opened or quickly closed should not be considered the cost of doing business,” the New York-based network said in its report. “And a program with a stated commitment to spread ‘high-quality’ schools should not be a major funding source for schools that leave families in the lurch and promote discriminatory enrollment practices.”
The network’s report called out several schools across the nation — including Idaho Falls-based American Heritage Public Charter School — as examples of grant recipients that discourage student diversity.
Contrary to claims in its grant application, American Heritage’s demographics do not reflect the community, the report says. For example, only 24 percent of American Heritage’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 46 percent of students in the Idaho Falls district.
The report suggests these gaps are cemented through school policy — including an emphasis on “patriotism,” a detailed dress code and a ban on head coverings, with no exceptions for religious or cultural reasons.
“The school uses a number of dog-whistle tactics to attract politically conservative families, which likely influences the demographic make-up of the school,” the report.
The report also notes that Frank VanderSloot — CEO of Idaho Falls’ Melaleuca Inc., and a well-heeled Republican donor — is one of American Heritage’s co-founders.
Jim Dalton, American Heritage’s board executive director, says the report’s premise is flawed. The school doesn’t have a school uniform, and no student has ever sought a religious waiver for a head covering. Patriotism is a foundation of the school’s curriculum, with the goal of teaching students to be engaged citizens.
“Since when did patriotism become something we don’t want in our young people?” Dalton asked. “We’re not political. It’s really about loving our country.”
Dalton helped start a similar school in Jerome, North Valley Academy, before he ever met VanderSloot. American Heritage’s governing charter mirrors North Valley Academy, Dalton says. VanderSloot and his wife Belinda have largely served as financial benefactors, Dalton said, providing a building and school site.
Dalton doesn’t dispute a main message from the report: the need to serve the community as a whole. American Heritage has tried to reach out to Latino families, by posting Facebook ads in Spanish and translating application materials into Spanish. But students are admitted based on a lottery — with no accounting for demographics — and most families apply through word of mouth.
“It just takes time,” he said.
Following the dollars in Idaho
The Network for Public Education report notes the failure rate of Idaho’s grant recipients, as first reported by Idaho Education News in 2016. Idaho public charter schools received $21.6 million in federal grants, and $2.3 million went to schools that never opened or later closed. The report also notes that the Idaho Public Charter School Commission in April 2018 imposed academic sanctions on 13 of the 25 schools up for renewal. Nine of these 13 charters had received federal grants.
While the State Department of Education no longer seeks federal charter grants, the feds’ money continues to come into Idaho. Last fall, the feds’ charter school program awarded $17.1 million to a consortium headed by Bluum Inc., a Boise nonprofit that promotes school choice.
“The consortium’s (federal) application is not available on the department’s website, but the abstract makes no mention of efforts to improve the financial stewardship of federal grant money intended to fund new charters,” the report said. “Bluum Inc.’s CEO Terry Ryan has defended the state’s charter startup failure rate as being significantly lower than new business failure rates, but he ignores the important distinction that new businesses are started with private capital, not taxpayer money.”
Two third-party groups will review the Idaho program, Ryan said Tuesday.
One panel will grade grant applications. This group will decide independently which schools get a share of the money, Ryan said.
Meanwhile, Boise State University’s Idaho Policy Institute has been hired to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, and the new schools it funds. The institute’s report is due in 2024.
The Bluum consortium includes the State Board of Education, the state charter school commission, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation and Building Hope, a nonprofit school finance group. The group hasn’t received any of the $17.1 million, Ryan said. The federal government will reimburse the consortium after schools receive a share of the grants.
Ultimately, Bluum hopes to use the $17.1 million to create 8,200 new charter school seats over five years. The federal dollars would go toward launching, expanding and replicating charter schools that would eventually receive a share of state K-12 dollars. Bluum’s overarching goal is to serve rural and at-risk groups — the students the Network for Public Education says are underserved.
“We’re trying to be strategic,” Ryan said.
The political overtones
Last week’s report focuses renewed attention on the Federal Charter Schools program, launched in 1994.
For years, the startup grant program has enjoyed widespread political backing, from Republican and Democratic administrations alike. The tone of the report, said Ryan, is “emblematic” of a political debate that has changed over the past couple of years.
Urging Congress to freeze funding, the Network for Public Education addresses the politics — without directly mentioning President Trump or his controversial education secretary, billionaire school choice advocate Betsy DeVos.
“We fear that the department’s indifference to accountability and its unwillingness to supervise the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that flow through the program are likely to increase under the current secretary, who presses for choice for the sake of choice, regardless of the cost to the American taxpayers and the disruption it causes to children and families.”
More about the report from Education Week.
Disclosure: Idaho Education News and Bluum are funded through grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.