NY charter schools sue U.S. Department of Education for refusing to pay federal grant funds; Bronx schools owed $217K

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Emily Kim, founder and CEO of Zeta Charter Schools, calls for U.S. Department of Education to release funding for charter schools.
Photo Jason Cohen

A group of New York charter schools filed a federal lawsuit this month against the U.S. Department of Education for allegedly sweeping away nearly $1 million in promised Charter School Programs funding.

U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres joined Zeta Charter Schools, Valence College Prep school leaders and families at a June 6 press conference at Zeta South Bronx, on Alexander Avenue, to urge the Department of Education to release the monies. The lawsuit was filed by Zeta Charter Schools, Valence College Prep, Buffalo Collegiate Charter School, Persistence Preparatory Academy Charter School and affected families.

According to the lawsuit, eight charter schools in New York lost nearly $1 million of 2011 Charter Schools Programs (CSP) funding in 2020 due to a bureaucratic error between the U.S. Department of Education and the New York State Education Department. CSP monies are disbursed to state education departments for five-year periods and then allocated to schools who apply for them.

The lawsuit states the federal government blocked the state Education Department (SED) from distributing funds from New York’s $113 million 2011 Charter School Program Grant in 2019, citing that the five-year federal grant had expired, despite the fact that SED had received an extension.

In early 2018, Zeta Inwood and Zeta South Bronx were awarded subgrants from the 2011 CSP with funds to be disbursed over three fiscal years: 2018, 2019 and 2020. However, Zeta and the other schools never received the monies for 2020 and after repeated inquiries to SED and members of Congress, in December 2021, Zeta learned that the monies had been swept back from the state by the U.S. Treasury.

Between Zeta Inwood and Zeta South Bronx schools, Zeta believes it is owed $217,559 in undisbursed funds.

“Our message to the (U.S.) Education Department is simple: Sign the check and ensure our schools receive the federal funds we were promised to serve our students,” said Emily Kim, founder and CEO of Zeta Charter Schools. “While this funding might be a drop in the bucket for the Education Department, it means everything to our schools, teachers and students. I hope the Education Department hears the voices of our students, teachers and school communities today and reconsiders their unjust decision by granting our schools the funds we so rightly deserve.”

According to the lawsuit, although SED submitted a waiver request to use the available 2018 CSP grant money to pay the eight charter schools the funding they were due, the U.S. Department of Education denied the state Education Department’s request and refused to distribute the funding. 

Alberto Betancourt, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), told the Bronx Times the DOE communicated with the state Education Department’s office about the deadline for disbursing the 2011 grant funds, but when SED missed the deadline to file the paperwork for the funds in October 2019, it reverted back to the Treasury, per the statute.

On July 22, 2021 the DOE sent a letter to state education officials explaining why it denied the waiver. In its denial letter, the DOE cited a series of statutes and regulations concerning federal appropriations and the CSP grant programs to justify its stated position that it lacked discretion to act.

“Although New York’s waiver request does not specify the requirements New York seeks to have waived, granting the waiver would require the Department to disregard a fundamental principle of Federal appropriations law, as established in the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) Principles of Federal Appropriations,” the letter stated. “Because GAO is primarily responsible for establishing standards governing Federal fiscal law, the Secretary does not exercise administrative authority over this requirement and, therefore, must disapprove New York’s waiver request.”

Betancourt did not tell the Bronx Times what will happen to the funds.

On Oct. 30, 2020, SED submitted its formal waiver request asking U.S. Department of Education for permission to reallocate funds. While the DOE denied the waiver, its denial contradicts what it did for other states.

For example, the department granted Pennsylvania’s request to extend the period of availability of funds in 2021 and granted a waiver request permitting Florida, a CSP grant recipient, to provide subgrants under Florida’s approved CSP grant to assist charters.

“The Department’s decision to deny NYSED’s Waiver Request was made without justification based in law or fact and has left NYSED without the financial means to disburse funds that the School Plaintiffs are indisputably owed,” the lawsuit states. “By denying NYSED’s Waiver Request, the Department has in effect stripped the School Plaintiffs of their lawfully awarded subgrants—funds that they were promised to support and serve some of America’s most vulnerable and least resourced students, including the Parent Plaintiffs’ children”

Noreen Cooke Coleman, principal of Zeta Bronx Tremont Park, calls for federal funding for charter schools to be released. Photo Jason Cohen

According to Kim, they wrote letters and made calls to the U.S. Department of Education for months about the funding being stripped, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Kim added that this isn’t just a charter school issue, but rather bureaucracy choosing money over helping children.

Torres said he was surprised that the U.S. Department of Education chose to “sabotage schools” during their COVID recovery instead of providing resources. These schools are in low-income areas, have homeless students, special needs students and kids who get free or reduced lunch and ultimately, need as much help as possible, he added.

“The federal government has robbed these students of funding that rightfully belongs to them and their education,” Torres said. “What has been done to these students is a profound injustice and the Department of Education has to rectify it for the good of every child.”

One person who sees the impact of funding on a daily basis is Noreen Cooke Coleman, principal of Zeta Bronx Tremont Park. Cooke Coleman said that her school, located on Arthur Avenue, is situated in one of the lowest performing school districts with just 1 in 4 students writing and performing math at their grade level. However, Zeta has helped children succeed during the pandemic and even acted as a food pantry for families.

But this type of impact cannot continue if there is not funding from the federal government, she said. The principal said the money could fund school lunch all year for more than 1,400 students, laptops for 3,000 students, thousands of books or more than one million KN95 masks.

“Every single dollar counts for our school,” Cooke Coleman said. “We’re all here to fight on behalf of our students and families who rely on our schools.”

Deanna Strom, a Zeta Inwood parent of two special needs students, recognizes how crucial school funding is to her children, as well as others at the schools. When was looking for a school for her kids, Ethan, 7, and Eva, who’s in kindergarten, she instantly fell in love with Zeta.

Standing alongside U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres, Deanna Strom, a Zeta Inwood parent, pleads for the release of the federal funds. Photo Jason Cohen

Since enrolling they have both improved a lot and feel at home at Zeta, she said.

“Zeta is one of the top reasons I’m still living in NYC,” she said. “Because of my children at Zeta, I take the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to deprive funding very personally. I don’t understand why the Dept. of Education is taking away resources from our children.”

Reach Jason Cohen at jasoncohen306@gmail.com or (646) 899-8058. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes