Last week, the Network for Public Education (NPE) again revealed that they are incapable of conducting unbiased and well-executed research. In a follow-up to a report they released earlier this year, the new report, Still Asleep at the Wheel, set out to undermine the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) by documenting supposed waste and fraud.
Instead, what they document is their fundamental misunderstanding of how the grant program works, poor research methods, and a willingness to misrepresent data to suit their narrative.
The report uses a database released by the Department of Education in 2015. This database lists the schools that received grant awards from 2006 through 2012. Overall, the report and its conclusions are based on a fundamentally flawed assumption that the awards listed in their database are equivalent to the money charter schools receive.
Charter schools only receive money from the grant as reimbursements for approved expenditures. Therefore, if a school never opens or closes before the grant period, they do not automatically receive the indicated award amount because they may not expend the funds.
The report misrepresents this fact as the basis for their estimate of “waste and fraud.”
The false claims in this report are not surprising. NPE has long been more concerned with stopping progress toward high-quality public education options than ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education. https://t.co/kPRODCndCC
— publiccharters.org (@charteralliance) December 11, 2019
The original report released in April 2019—Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride—suggested that $1 billion was potentially wasted on schools that never opened or closed quickly. That assertion was challenged in part due to the fact that NPE was not diligent in their accounting of quickly closed or never-opened schools. For example, there were multiple instances of schools counted as closed that are still in operation.
In response, the updated report suggests that NPE engaged in a “painstaking” process to verify the operation status of their list of charter schools. However, they still didn’t get the list of closed and never-opened schools right.
Perhaps even more concerning is due to their new list of schools, they had to move the goal posts to get back to the original $1 billion estimate. The report now includes all schools that closed rather than only schools that closed quickly. Even if a school was open for 10 years, they still categorize the CSP startup money the school received as waste.
This conclusion is particularly ridiculous, given that a feature of charter schools is that they are closed if they are not serving kids well, a feature district schools do not have.
Closing schools is never easy, but it’s ethically wrong to trap kids in schools that fail to serve them. While we need better understanding around why schools close nationally, some states periodically release their school closure lists. The report leverages closure data for Arizona and Ohio to illustrate reasons for school closures—focusing on one category in particular: mismanagement/fraud.
However, the problem is the report NPE cited doesn’t even use this categorization. Instead, they use “mismanagement”—a different reason entirely. While there are school closure cases that could be considered fraudulent, NPE’s overarching characterization here is deeply misleading. There is almost no evidence that suggests fraudulent use of CSP money as a reason for school closure.
For the record, the schools (original names) are Roads Charter School I, Roads Charter School II, and Teaching Firms of America. This suggests that NPE’s estimate in NY is off by at least $1.7 million (or 16%) https://t.co/oBE4HakSjT
— Matt Barnum (@matt_barnum) December 11, 2019
The report and its premise prevent readers from truly understanding the nationwide positive and essential impact of the CSP. It is impossible to contextualize the NPE’s findings without understanding the benefits the CSP provides to charter schools that remain open and to the students that they serve. The report blatantly ignores the academic results that charter schools yield for students and the almost 5 million students who would attend a charter school if one were available to them.
With Still Asleep at the Wheel as the perfect example, we know people who feel justified in their cause are willing to create evidence to support what they believe rather than have evidence shape their beliefs. Especially when it comes to the education of children, we must do better. We can’t have honest discourse to create better policies if we aren’t using fact-based reports, and the Still Asleep at the Wheel publication has no place in an honest conversation.