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D.C. Charter Schools Evade Questions on Pandemic Bailout Aid

Fritz Mulhauser | May 14, 2020 | Last modified: May 15, 2020

It’s unknown how many charter schools in Washington, D.C., already funded with almost a billion D.C. and federal tax dollars each year, have also taken federal pandemic bailout money. Only a few schools would answer a reporter’s questions, according to a story yesterday (13) by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein.

The silence is deafening in light of widespread questions whether the government funds during the COVID-19 crisis are going where the economic need is greatest in the now exhausted federal Paycheck Protection Program, administered by the Small Business Administration. 

Many basic facts about charter schools in the District have long remained secret. The 63 authorized operators and their 123 schools, by effectively playing D.C. politics, have for years fended off application of public records and open meetings laws, citing unsupported predictions of likely costs and burdens.

The D.C. Open Government Coalition has testified many times in favor of legislation to apply open government laws to charters, backed by research showing it’s routine and unremarkable in other states. Such an expansion of law is pending before the D.C. Council.

Two D.C. charter schools acknowledged receiving the pandemic relief funds; two others said they were denied. But as to the others, Stein wrote that “most charter operators declined to say.” The two largest charter networks, Friendship and KIPP, are not eligible as they have over 500 employees. Where received, the funds will show up only in a school’s annual financial report due to the Public Charter School Board by the end of the year.

D.C. private schools have received publicity for taking funds under the same program. According to the Post’s May 6 report, also by Stein and Donna St. George, “St. Andrew’s Episcopal, the Potomac, Md., school that President Trump’s youngest son attends, was one of them. Officials there confirmed that it received a $2.2 million loan.” Also, “Sidwell Friends School, the elite Washington private school, has been under attack over its decision to keep $5 million in federal bailout money.”

Even as broader discussion grows about targeting of relief funds to those most in need, the federal Small Business Administration agency overseeing the program has failed to respond to multiple requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Five outlets have asked unsuccessfully for a month for expedited release of details on recipients in the Paycheck Protection and also the Economic Injury Disaster Loan programs. A federal lawsuit challenges the SBA failure to respond, filed Tuesday (12) by The Washington Post and four other news organizations – Bloomberg, Dow Jones (parent company of the Wall Street Journal), ProPublica, and the New York Times. The suit, in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is WP Company LLC v. SBA, No. 20-cv-1240-ABJ. Aaron Gregg reported for the Post on the lawsuit the day it was filed.