Friday, December 20, 2019

Dubious Research Used to Attack Charter Schools Program

The Network for Public Education (NPE) has just published a second report claiming that the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has “wasted” more than a billion dollars. 

Starting with its claims of financial loss, the report is strong on emotional appeal but weak on evidence, logic, and facts. NPE’s Still Asleep at the Wheel builds on an earlier report that received major media airtime (and was even cited by presidential contenders) and uses dubious methods to cast aspersions on a program that consistently, and most recently this week, wins bipartisan support from Congress.

The report starts with a confusing story about a dispute between Michigan’s Department of Education and its state Board about whether to continue accepting funds from CSP. The story then abruptly shifts to the case of a Detroit charter high school that closed suddenly, saddening its students and their families. Other than the common location in Michigan, the two episodes are not connected. Yet the story succeeds in attaching the feelings of grief about the Detroit kids to the object, CSP, which the authors want to discredit.

The report’s claim of a billion dollars wasted stirs emotion but lacks evidence. Its dollar claims rely on three fallacies. First, that multiyear grants made to groups that did not end up starting a charter school were entirely wasted. In truth, groups that did not start schools only received funds for a year, and were reimbursed only for one year’s costs. Thus, the federal funds spent on what the authors call “ghost” schools were a fraction of what the authors claim.

Second, the report claims funds actually spent on charter schools that did not open were wasted. Many charter schools listed in the report still operate, just not exactly in the form described in their applications. As intended, their year’s planning revealed the need for a school with a different focus, serving different grade levels, or in a different location than originally intended. Some grant recipients joined together. Others started more than one school. These changes show the value of a planning grant, not waste.

In a third fallacy, the report claims all the schools whose ID numbers the authors could not find in their database were closed, and counts all the grant funds spent on these schools as wasted. 

For example, one of the largest “wasted” grants listed in the report’s Florida section went to KIPP Voice Elementary, a Jacksonville school opened in 2012 by a well-regarded nonprofit. The school has since merged with an adjacent middle school operated by the same organization to serve Kindergarten through 8th grade. The report claims it closed, but it’s thriving. Last academic year, the combined school received a grade of “B” for academic achievement, making it one of Jacksonville’s highest-rated schools where 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Spot checks reveal similar errors for schools in other states.

With a little more work, NPE could have checked these facts. But that would have reduced the shock value of the $1 billion figure.

Whatever the real amount spent on schools that were short-lived or never started, it’s wrong to call it all waste. The CSP intended to encourage new ideas and new school providers. Innovation creates risk. Some failures and changes of direction were inevitable, as Congress understood when it created the program.

After making lurid financial claims, the authors continue covering the CSP in a fog of negative emotion. They claim a Michigan educator profits from helping unqualified groups get federal start-up grants, when in fact, she has helped develop dozens of successful charters. They call Washington state negligent for having many proposed schools that didn’t start up—ignoring the fact those schools died when a union-sponsored lawsuit led to a suspension of the state’s charter school program.

The report ends with a couple of reasonable recommendations: closer tracking of spending and results, more caution. These are always warranted. As the report inadvertently shows, it is hard to be sure how much of the money granted to prospective charter schools has actually been spent. 

But the report’s recommendation that the charter school program be abandoned because of waste and fraud reflect the authors’ intent to attack charter schools—not the flimsy “evidence” they provide. 

The charter school movement has its problems. It’s not news that states vary in how rigorously they vet charter applications and track school performance. Or that state policies allowing distant school districts and low-expertise agencies to authorize charters in big cities were disastrous in states like Michigan and Ohio. 

But states, the federal Education Department, and the charter movement itself are working to address these issues. NPE’s report doesn’t reveal anything not known before—it raises bogus issues, inflates real ones, and attaches unrelated emotions to neutral facts.

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