Screengrab of hearing
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Screengrab of hearing)

WASHINGTON – Citing reports of waste and abuse that have gone unchecked by the Department of Education, Representative Rosa DeLauro on Tuesday called into question a proposed $60 million hike in federal funding for charter schools in the next fiscal year.

“In my view, this budget is full of cruel cuts to education programs and it baffles me that you found room for a $60 million increase to the charter school programs … especially when you consider recent reports of waste and abuse in that program,” said DeLauro during questioning of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at a budget hearing.

DeLauro, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, pointed to recent reports that raised concerns about the number of charter schools using federal funding that either never opened or precipitously closed due to mismanagement.

The Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group, issued a report “Asleep at the Wheel” that claims the U.S. Education Department does not adequately monitor how charter school program grants are used.

The report says more than 1,000 grants – totaling about $1 billion – were given to schools that never opened, or closed because of mismanagement, poor performance, lack of enrollment or fraud. The report mentions at least one charter school in Connecticut that received a $585,000 grant to open in 2013 and within a few years was “falsifying enrollment and attendance data resulting in a $1.57 million overpayment to the school.” The charter management organization, Our Piece of the Pie, surrendered the license before the State Board of Education could pull its charter.

The report also found some grants have been awarded to charter schools that set barriers to enrollment, noting that grants were awarded to 34 California charter schools on an American Civil Liberties Union list of charters that discriminate in admissions, according to an article in the Washington Post.

“Our investigation finds the U.S. Department of Education has not been a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars in its management of the CSP,” the report says.

DeVos said her department is keenly aware of the concerns raised by the report but argued that the failure of some charter schools is the price you pay for seeking innovation needed to provide quality education to every student.

“What we need is more charter schools and more options for children not less,” she said. “And states are proving time and again, that there are wonderful options that are being developed for children of every learning type and interest, and we need more of them not less. And when you have experimentation, you’re always going to have schools that don’t make it and that’s exactly as what should happen. They should close.”

DeLauro argued the department should not be providing more funding to charter schools without stringent oversight. She noted that her subcommittee is charged with making sure federal education funds are monitored and the Department of Education is held accountable and is not “asleep at the wheel for what is happening with charter schools in this country.”

DeLauro was critical of the overall budget proposal that came from the Department of Education calling it “cruel” and “reckless,” and questioned how DeVos could stand behind it.

DeVos said the fiscal year 2020 budget proposal would reduce education funding by $7.1 billion – a similar decrease to what the Trump administration proposed in the previous year. While Congress rejected those recommendations a year ago, DeVos argued that spending reductions are needed and programs should be focused on results.

“Over the past 40 years federal taxpayer spending on education has increased about 180 percent, amounting to over $1.2 trillion cumulatively, and yet we’re still 24th in reading, 25th in science and 14th in math when compared to the rest of the world. Doing the same thing, and more of it won’t bring about new results,” she said.

DeVos said her focus is on providing more flexibility to teachers, parents and students.

“Education shouldn’t be an old school industrial – a one size fits all approach. Every student is unique, and everyone learns differently, every child should be free to learn where and how it works for them, where and how it unlocks their potential,” she said.

A key proposal in the budget are “Education Freedom Scholarships” that would offer federal tax credits for voluntary contributions to non-profit organizations that provide scholarships to students to attend the school of their choice.

“Education freedom scholarships aren’t only for students who want to attend private schools. In fact, some states may choose to design scholarships for public school options, such as apprenticeships or transportation to a different public school. States have the opportunity to be really imaginative and to serve the unique needs of their students,” DeVos said.

DeLauro described the proposal as a “tax scheme” that would “undermine our public schools.”

Watch the hearing