School bus
Susan Pendergrass

The breathless headline asserting the United States has “wasted” up to $1 billion on charter schools is an eye-catcher. That conclusion comes from a paper released by an advocacy group that claims the U.S. Department of Education has been “asleep at the wheel” in administering the Charter Schools Program.

First, let’s not confuse charter schools with the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP).  The CSP was implemented in 1994 in order to increase the national understanding of charter schools and to expand the number of high-quality charter schools. The CSP awards grants for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools. Some schools that received planning grants were never able to open. According to the notes in the CSP data file, there are a number of reasons that might happen, including not being able to find a building, deciding to combine with another operator, or other typical start-up issues. And some charter schools that received grants and opened were then closed, as the charter school model dictates they would if they have performance or financial issues.

So, of the $12.5 trillion (adjusted for inflation) spent on K-12 public education since 1995, the $4 billion in grants awarded through the CSP accounts for 0.03 percent. And of that, according to the authors of the report, one-fourth, or 0.008 percent, went to schools that either didn’t open or opened and have since closed. Asleep at the wheel! Imagine what’s been spent on traditional public schools that are failing students, but never get closed.

Parental satisfaction and support for charter schools remains extremely high, particularly among younger parents. And the charter school sector is designed for continuous improvement, refining its planning and chartering process so that new charter schools can open strong and those that aren’t working close down. Sounds like more of a self-driving car than one careening off the road to me.


About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.