But according to these whistleblowers, Pocan said, professional staff was overruled by political appointees who ordered the funding be awarded to IDEA. The identities of the whistleblowers were not revealed to The Post, nor were the names of the political appointees.
The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.
IDEA, a Texas-based charter school network with nearly 100 campuses in Texas and Louisiana serving nearly 53,000 students, said in a statement:
“Peer reviewers from education and other fields evaluate grant applications independently from Department of Education staff. In three of the last four Charter Schools Program competitions, spanning two administrations and including the most recent round of grants, the independent reviewers who evaluated applications gave IDEA Public Schools the highest scores of any applicant in the country. (In 2017, IDEA received the second-highest score.) All of the outside reviewers’ scores and comments are public on the Department’s website, and we encourage anyone doubting the strength of IDEA’s applications and our 20-year track record with students to read those reviews.”
Earlier this month, the Education Department announced it was awarding millions of dollars in new grants to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. IDEA was the top recipient, receiving $72 million over five years. IDEA had previously received more than $200 million in funding over the past decade through the program.
But the network has been dogged by controversy. This month, IDEA chief executive Tom Torkelson resigned after publicly apologizing for “really dumb and unhelpful” plans that included leasing a private jet for millions of dollars and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on San Antonio Spurs tickets. The Texas Monitor reported last month that Torkelson had flown on a private jet to Tampa to meet with DeVos to discuss “education philanthropy,” records show. The Monitor reported he was the only passenger on a jet that can hold nine people.
Last November, the Education Department’s inspector general criticized IDEA in an audit of data IDEA included in annual performance reviews it submitted to the federal government, required as part of the grants received from the federal Charter Schools Program.
The inspector general concluded that IDEA Public Schools “did not provide complete and accurate information” for all performance measures on annual performance reports over three years and did not report any information for 84 percent of the performance measures on which it was required to report over two years. Still, IDEA had certified its annual performance reports were “true, complete and accurate.”
The audit also found IDEA “did not always spend grant funds in accordance with federal cost principles and its approved grant applications.”
IDEA acknowledged some of the findings, took issue with others, and agreed with all the recommendations from the inspector general to improve internal procedures.
That inspector general report, together with the suggestion that political appointees pushed through more grant money, should spark an even deeper inspection of IDEA, Pocan said in an interview.
“There needs to be an investigation,” Pocan said. “This would be completely improper to take a program that has to have inspector general reports and a lot of media attention about bad decisions they’ve made, and then to get a grant that wasn’t approved by the professional staff and instead given for political reasons.”
“That’s an awful lot of money,” he said. “DeVos has a lot of explaining to do.”
In late February, DeVos testified before the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee for labor, health and human services, education and related agencies, where she defended the Trump administration’s proposed 2021 Education Department budget. She had several testy exchanges with Democratic leaders, including with Pocan about charter schools, which you can read about here.
(Updating with IDEA statement)
Here’s the text of Pocan’s letter: