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By Robert A. Vella

Oh boy, the stuff is really hitting the fan these days in Washington, D.C.  Speaker of the House John Boehner resigns from government, his handpicked protégé Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdraws from the race to replace him, and now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling it quits.

To quote legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, “what the hell’s going on out there?”

From the Huffington PostArne Duncan’s Legacy: Growing Influence of a Network of Private Actors on Public Education:

By Sherman Dorn, Arizona State University and Amanda U. Potterton, Arizona State University

Arne Duncan is leaving the US Department of Education in December. Reactions to his legacy have been mixed. Some see him as a heroic reformer, and others a well-intentioned but overreaching bureaucrat. He has been called the third secretary of education for George W Bush or the center of stormy education politics.

As researchers of education policy, we see him differently: the hub of a network of policy advocates. As the head of the federal Department of Education, he actively facilitated private actors’ influence on public education policy.

[…]

He was joined in 2009 by some of the most powerful members of a Democratic-leaning group of education reformers: among them were Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton, a former leader of education policy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Joanne Weiss, the Chief Operating Officer at NewSchools Venture Fund who became Duncan’s chief of staff. NewSchools Venture Fund is a venture philanthropy firm that sponsors the growth of charter school chains.

In 2009, both organizations were part of a growing network of advocates which Michigan State University political scientist Sarah Reckhow has called the Boardroom Progressives.

These reformers have largely consisted of private actors, including leaders of education nonprofits, charter school founders and other nontraditional school leaders whose essential resources for reform come from the private wealth of major foundations, an approach that Berkeley education professor Janelle Scott has termed “venture philanthropy.”

From Campaign for America’s FutureThe Ugly Charter School Scandal Arne Duncan Is Leaving Behind:

By Jeff Bryant

Arne Duncan’s surprise announcement to leave his post as secretary of education in December is making headlines and driving lots of commentary, but an important story lost in the media clutter happened three days before he gave notice.

On that day, Duncan rattled the education policy world with news of a controversial grant of $249 million ($157 million the first year) to the charter school industry. This announcement was controversial because, as The Washington Post reports, an audit by his department’s own inspector general found “that the agency has done a poor job of overseeing federal dollars sent to charter schools.”

Post reporter Lynsey Layton notes, “The agency’s inspector general issued a scathing report in 2012 that found deficiencies in how the department handled federal grants to charter schools between 2008 and 2011” – in other words, during Duncan’s watch.

Even more perplexing is that the largest grant of $71 million ($32.5 million the first year) is going to Ohio, the state that has the worst reputation for allowing low-performing charter schools to divert tax money away from educational purposes and do little to raise the achievement of students.

[…]

A recent report from the Center for Media and Democracy found that over the past 20 years the federal government has sent over $3.3 billion to the charter school industry with virtually no accountability. That report notes “the federal government maintains no comprehensive list of the charter schools that have received and spent these funds or even a full list of the private or quasi-public entities that have been approved by states to ‘authorize’ charters that receive federal funds.”

But Secretary Duncan has been particularly generous to charter schools. One of the conditions states had to meet to win a Race to the Top grant, his signature program, was to raise any caps they may have had on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state. His department warned states receiving waivers to the onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind not to enact any new policies that would undermine charter schools’ “autonomy.”

Congress has done its part, too, raising the amount of federal money going to charter schools through the Charter School Grants program.

The CMD report cited above calculated that the feds are expected to increase charter school funding by 48 percent in fiscal year 2016, which would have been Duncan’s last year on the job. That’s about $375 million more for charters, estimates journalist Juan Gonzalez.

Yet at the same time federal support for charter schools continues to grow, revelations increasingly show the results of that spending are frequently disastrous.

Dollars For Disaster

A recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) uncovered over $200 million in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country.

The report follows a similar report released a year ago by the same groups that detailed $136 million in fraud and waste and mismanagement in 15 of the 42 states that operate charter schools. The 2015 report cites $203 million, including the 2014 total plus $23 million in new cases, and $44 million in earlier cases not included in the previous year’s report.

Authors of the report called $200-plus million the “tip of the iceberg,” because much of the fraud “will go undetected because the federal government, the states, and local charter authorizers lack the oversight necessary to detect the fraud.”

Adding to concerns over how federal funds for charter schools are used, state audits, like the one conducted in Ohio, have also found widespread financial fraud and abuse committed by these schools.

Although the CPD-AROS report made policy recommendations for mandatory audits of charters and increased transparency and accountability for these schools, none of those recommendations seem to have gotten any attention, much less action, from Duncan and his staff.

A Process Cloaked In Mystery

Both the ends and the means of federal grants to charter schools remain mostly a mystery. Not only do we not know what happens to most of the money; we don’t know how recipients for the money are chosen.

As CMD’s Jonas Persson writes on that organization’s PR Watch blog, “The public is being kept in the dark about which states have applied for the lucrative grants, and what their actual track records are when it comes to preventing fraud and misuse … The U.S Department of Education has repeatedly refused to honor a CMD request under the Freedom of Information Act for the grant applications, even though public information about which states have applied would not chill deliberation and might even help better assess which applicants should receive federal money.”

Also unknown are the names of the “peers” who review applications for the grant money.

[…]

A Hands-Off Policy For Charter Schools?

For his part, Secretary Duncan seems little interested in how new federal grants to charter schools will be spent, saying it’s “largely up to states and the public agencies that approve charter schools,” according to the Post article cited above. “At the federal level, we don’t have a whole lot of leverage,” he mused.

This seems an oddly resigned comment from an education secretary whose department has made the minute scrutiny of state policy governing nearly everything having to do with public education – from standards, to teacher evaluations, to tutoring requirements.

Why would a secretary so often accused of leading an unprecedented overreach of federal intrusion in state education policy suddenly become so nonchalant about oversight of charter schools?

It certainly doesn’t help dampen suspicion that Duncan’s replacement as acting secretary will be John King, the controversial former New York State Education Commissioner, who has deep ties to the charter school industry.

Before becoming New York Commissioner, King helped to found and operate a charter school management organization with schools in New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.

Because King will be acting secretary, no nomination process or Congressional hearings will be needed to approve the leadership change.

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