Detroit Free Press Publishes Weeklong, Blockbuster Investigation of Michigan Charters

The huge investigation of Michigan’s charter schools, a series of stories, graphics, and interviews being published this week by the Detroit Free Press, includes a lot more information than you want to know if you live in Oregon or Illinois or Kentucky or Nebraska or Massachusetts or Georgia.  But it is so important you should take a look at it no matter where you live, because it speaks to a phenomenon that is unprecedented.  Although the federal government has been creating huge incentives for states to expand rapidly the number of charter schools—by making the removal of statutory caps on the authorization of new charters a condition for a state even to submit an application for a Race to the Top grant and by making available additional federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has left the oversight and regulation of charters up to the fifty state legislatures.  While I have personally heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proclaim, “Good charters are part of the solution; bad charters are part of the problem,” I have never heard him suggest that the federal government itself should address the challenge of public oversight of the tax dollars being siphoned away by charters.

And many newspapers, beholden to the business community and chamber of commerce, have too often failed to investigate what is in many states the egregious theft of tax dollars from meager state education budgets.  Last week I was delighted to hear the wife of a prominent retired Ohio politician name what she called “grand larceny” by the on-line charters in our own state, but news coverage has until recently been primarily by the Akron Beacon Journal, although the Columbus Dispatch and even the Plain Dealer are expanding coverage of failed charters.  The new Detroit Free Press investigation will directly benefit those in Michigan who are trying to bend the arc of Michigan’s politics toward justice.  For the rest of us, we need to read at least some of these articles to learn how what’s happening in Michigan may relate to what’s happening in our own states.  And we need to celebrate the newspapers and blogs courageous enough to embark on such investigations.  Kudos to the Detroit Free Press whose report will continue all week.

If, for example, you read Michigan’s Biggest Charter Operator Charges Big Rents: 14 Schools Pay $1M, you will learn that for-profit,  “National Heritage Academies is not just the state’s largest charter school management company — it’s also the largest charter school landlord, and its schools pay NHA some jaw-dropping rents… A Free Press review of records shows that two-thirds of NHA’s 47 Michigan schools—scattered across the state—pay as much in rent to NHA as tenants in Detroit’s Renaissance Center, with its expansive views of the Detroit River.”  Michigan law requires information about charter school leases neither to be posted on the schools’ websites nor to be provided to the board members of the charter schools, or the parents, or the public.  Charter schools in Michigan receive per-pupil funding from the state, but the schools hand over 95 percent of the funds to the management company which handles costs for basics like building leases.

Eclectablog reports that early this week National Heritage Academies responded to the Free Press investigation by buying up virtually all advertising space on the front page of printed editions of both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News. Take a look at the front-page views provided by Eclectablog and imagine the tax money being invested in advertising.

According to the first article in the Free Press series, charter schools in Michigan use up 9 percent of state per-pupil school funding—a total of $1 billion every year.  Problems include: “Wasteful spending and double-dipping.  Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders.  Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic scores.  No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.”  Sixty-one percent of Michigan’s 370 charter schools “have enlisted a full-service, for-profit management company…  Michigan far exceeds states like Florida, Ohio and Missouri, where only about one-third of charters were run by a full-service, for-profit management company in 2011-12….”  Authorizers keep 3 percent for oversight and turn over the rest  to the individual school board running the school.  “The proliferation of schools run by management companies in Michigan also has brought with it cozy relationships between the companies and their schools’ authorizers… Both authorizers and management companies often have a hand in recruiting board members, who critics say can’t be truly independent.”

Monday’s article, Weak Michigan Charter School Laws Enable Scams, Insider Dealing, reports that in 2011, 17 years after the first charter school in Michigan opened, the legislature passed a law to begin regulating charters, their boards, and their management companies, but, “The new provision, which took effect in 2012, has a big weakness: It only prohibits board members from serving if relatives work for the school or have a financial stake or job with the school’s management company.  It does not prohibit a host of other insider relationships.  Boards are free to give contracts to friends or relatives of the school’s administrators and founders.  Privately owned management companies that run charter schools don’t have to disclose whom they’ve hired as employees or vendors, so they are free to hire board members’ friends.  School founders are not prohibited from running both a school and its management company.”

John Chamberlin, an emeritus professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, is quoted castigating Michigan’s legislature: “When you say, ‘Line up here and you can scam the state,’ you shouldn’t be surprised if people line up and scam the state.”  The Free Press recommends specifics that ought to be incorporated into stricter laws including shutting down a revolving door by which current authorizers take jobs with the management companies they have supposedly been overseeing.

Tuesday’s article describes charter school board members ousted by their schools’ authorizers after the board members asked tough questions.  “The Free Press found board members who were kept clueless by their management companies about school budgets or threatened and removed by a school’s authorizer when they tried to exercise the responsibilities that come with their oath of office.”  Because Michigan law allows management companies to recruit board members for the schools they manage, “Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who has studied charters, said many board members view themselves as ‘advisory,’ particularly if they’ve turned over operations to a management company that may make decisions at corporate headquarters halfway across the state or country.  Legally, the board is… publicly and fiscally responsible for these schools, but they don’t realize that… Their power is so limited their insight into what is going on in their schools is so limited… they don’t have the information they need to do public oversight, to determine whether public tax dollars are spent in a good and sensible way.”

Wednesday, in Pro-Charter Lobby Shows Its Clout in Legislature, the Free Press explores the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter PAC underwritten by Dick and Betsy DeVos, the Amway moguls who have led pro-voucher campaigns across the United States, additional members of the DeVos family, Jim and John Walton of Walmart fame, and J.C. Huizenga, founder of National Heritage Academies, Michigan’s largest chain of for-profit charter schools.

The series will continue all week long.  I encourage you to read the stories referenced here and to check out those scheduled to follow: Thursday and Friday on the 40 percent of Michigan schools whose academic records are appallingly low; Saturday on the failure of Detroit’s charters to serve the poorest children; and Sunday the series conclusion.

The Detroit Free Press used the freedom of information Act to obtain records from schools and authorizers, conducted hundreds of interviews, and reviewed over 400 binders kept by the Michigan Department of Education, one for each of the state’s charter schools.  The newspaper will post on Thursday the comprehensive, searchable data base it has created for the purpose of sharing every charter school’s “test results and rankings, its management company, whether the company is for-profit or not, and what services it provides.”