During our investigations, we came across a previous report published by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) in 2015, during the Obama presidential administration, that found similarly disturbing results, where federal grants had gone to hundreds of charter schools that had basically taken the money and run.
To compile its report, CMD had submitted 33 Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Education and was told these records would be forthcoming. The promised records never came.
The department also refused to provide CMD with public records regarding communications between federal and state officials about charter school grants and oversight. The largest grants by far had gone to state education agencies (SEAs) to disburse in subgrants to charter school startups and expansions. Federal officials claimed releasing such information would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
After CMD repeated its requests, the department released a list of some charter schools receiving the SEA grant money in a PDF that was “partly illegible.” Other information CMD requested related to the applications for the state grants never came. CMD concluded in its report summary, “Public information about funds received and spent by charters is severely lacking.”
The information CMD was eventually able to piece together came out in its report in October 2015, receiving widespread coverage by education policy blogs and community organizers.
Two months after the CMD report appeared, the Charter School Program released a dataset showing all grants awarded between school years 2006–07 and 2013–14, with information on grants given to start-up, replicate, and expand charter schools. The dataset was released on Dec. 23 — just two days before the holiday break — to minimize attention.
Also in the same year, perhaps in anticipation of the CMD report, the department issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to SEAs emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars. The letter recommended SEAs conduct regular independent audits and strengthen authorizing practices. And the department provided an “Overview of the 2015 CSP SEA Review Process” explaining how the program awarding charter grants to states is administered.