How a soccer club won a $1.2 million grant to open a charter school from DeVos’s Education Department

Charter schools, a key feature of the “school choice” movement, are financed by the public but privately operated. About 6 percent of U.S. schoolchildren attend charter schools, with California having the most charter schools and the most charter students.

Charters had bipartisan support for years, but a growing number of Democrats have pulled back from the movement, citing the fiscal impact on school districts and repeated scandals in the sector.

Charter supporters say the 30-year-old movement offers important alternatives to traditional public schools, which educate the vast majority of U.S. students, and that the movement is still learning. Opponents say there is little public accountability over many charters and that they drain resources from traditional districts.

Research shows student outcomes are, overall, largely the same in charter and traditional public schools, although there are failures and exemplars in both.

This piece, like a number of earlier ones on charters, was written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who serves as executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for public education.

Burris, who opposes charter schools, was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the National Association of Secondary School Principals named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year.

I asked the Education Department to comment on the grant to the soccer club, about which Burris writes, but did not get an immediate response. I will add it if I do.

By Carol Burris

In late September 2020, amid the covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education awarded nearly $6 million to five organizations to open new charter schools. One of the five awardees was “The All Football Club, Lancaster Lions Corporation,” located in Lancaster, Pa. The club had no experience running either a private school or a charter school, yet nevertheless pitched the AFCLL Academy Charter School for a grant from the federal Charter School Program (CSP).

The CSP awarded the football club $1,260,750 to be spent within its first five years, even though their submitted application only received 70 of 115 possible points by reviewers — a failing grade of 61 percent. And the club did not have permission from the local school board to actually open the school.

That award of tax dollars to an unauthorized charter school shines a light on how the federal CSP is driven by an ideology with only one aim — to push taxpayer dollars into the hands of would-be private charter operators, even if the school appears doomed to fail from the start.

As the Network for Public Education explained in two recent reports on the CSP program, the application reviewers, who are all connected to charter schools, assign points based on the submitted application alone. Here’s the description of the prospective school’s mission, verbatim:

“The goal of the program was to ultimately to increase the attitudes of inner-city, at risk youth toward post-secondary education; as well as to inculcate values and skills that are necessary for success in a college environment. We are constant communication on the progress of AFCLL Academy and they are valuable resource for AFCLL Academy.”

The application lists the founding team members of the prospective school. In addition to Brian Ombiji, a former professional soccer player and chief executive officer of the city’s soccer club, other members include Dean Kline, a local venture capitalist, and Daniel Perry, the deputy regional director for the for-profit online school K12, Inc.

Kline is the senior manager of Rossier EdVentures. Perry, in addition to working for K12, is described as — again, verbatim from the application — “the Founder and Lead Consultant Daniel Education Group, where they, Provide leadership development and support for new school leaders. consulting for schools and districts in the areas of instructional leadership, assessment, student and staff culture, and special education. Provide consulting for organization in the areas of leadership development, role identification, team development, and strategic planning.”

Reading the entire application and comparing it to how it was rated provides insight into how frivolous the granting of a CSP award of over $1 million can be. Some of the application is nearly incoherent and fraught with grammatical errors, as illustrated above. Other parts appear to be written by a different author who is familiar with education jargon and the state laws that would be relevant to school operations. Raters are not allowed to probe any deeper than the application itself. So as long as an applicant knows the right things to say, it is likely to be approved.

Nevertheless, significant flaws were found by the CSP reviewers, including a lack of letters of support from the community. That lack of documentation is unsurprising. The school is not a community-led effort, which became evident at the Lancaster school board’s hearing to decide whether the charter school should be authorized.

According to a Sept. 1, 2020, local news report of that evening’s meeting, the All Football Club did not bring any letters of support from community groups. Residents, representatives of a local charter school, and the NAACP spoke out against the new charter school.

The Rev. Al Williams, speaking on behalf of the Lancaster NAACP, said his organization doubted that the proposed school would provide equitable opportunity for the city’s students, especially its English language learners. The school district’s attorney asked, “Why not just have an independent soccer club? It almost sounds like this is a soccer club in search of a charter school as opposed to a charter school itself.”

The Football Club did not provide a list of prospective students or a site for the school. Its application projected a deficit of $5 million in five years.

When Ombiji returned to the Board on Oct. 7, he had three letters of support — two from local businesses, whose names he would not share, and one from a parent. And he announced he had gotten the federal CSP grant, although he did not share the amount. The school board was unmoved. On Oct. 20, 2020, the members unanimously voted to decline to authorize the school.

Will that be the end of the AFCLL Academy Charter School and the $1.26 million CSP grant? Not necessarily.

Ombiji can appeal to the state charter board or go to another district with his proposal. Meanwhile, he will likely have access to CSP planning funds. That is because having the approval to open a charter school is not required to turn on the spigot of federal money.

The revelation that millions of federal tax dollars go to charter schools that never educate even one student shocked readers of our Network for Public Education 2019 reports, “Asleep at the Wheel” and “Still Asleep at the Wheel.” In those studies, we provided evidence that between 2006-07 and 2013-14, there were 537 proposed charter schools that never opened received, or were due to receive when data collection ended, a total of $45,546,552 million. In Michigan, for example, those funds were generally in the order of $100,000, with large amounts going into the pockets of the operators and their preferred vendors.

In the state of Pennsylvania, where the proposed charter school would be located, we identified 41 charter schools that got federal money but never opened for even one day. And yet, the day after the announcement of the grant to the Lancaster Football Club, DeVos gave the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools $30 million to open new charters in the Commonwealth. In 2018, this organization reported that it spent in excess of $74,000 of its income on “government relations” (translate lobbying) — a substantial amount, given that its total income that year was only $457,065.

Thanks to the CSP program, the Pennsylvania Coalition’s half-million dollar-a-year income will be boosted by an additional $3.67 million in the first year of the grant alone. Of that amount, the charter advocacy organization will be allowed to keep approximately $367,000 for administration and technical assistance to charter schools. By the end of the grant period, the administrative/assistance amount will rise to a total of $3 million — a boost in money and power for a charter advocacy organization that defends online charter schools, including those run by for-profit management companies. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s cash-strapped public school districts have begged for relief from the excessive tuition bills they must pay to the online schools.

In the 2020 cycle, other nonprofit charter advocacy organizations received multi-million dollar grants to disburse to prospective charters. Charter advocacy organizations in New Jersey and Nevada got tens of millions each; the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association received a $63,232,945 five-year grant, which means that over $6 million will go to the organization itself.

The ability of private charter advocacy organizations to receive and disburse millions of CSP dollars is a recent change.

Before 2017, only state education departments were eligible for these mega-grants. But due to pro-charter lobbying efforts, the 2015 federal K-12 Every Students Succeeds Act — the successor law to the 2001 No Child Left Behind — increased the total amount that the applicant could retain for services and to allow private charter support organizations to apply for grants.

A consequence of that change is the pressure that state education departments now feel to apply for these grants themselves, even if they have no need or desire to expand charter schools in their states.

Insiders in both the California and Michigan State Education Departments told me they applied for and received CSP grants in order to keep private organizations from obtaining the funds during the year their state was eligible. As one official told me, “At least we can maintain some quality control on charter expansion.”

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