Let Us Count the Ways that Charter Schools Rip Off their Students and the Taxpayers

The National Association for Public Charter Schools, one of the big lobbying organizations for charter schools, proclaims that these institutions operate as public institutions to promote the public interest. But charter schools are a classic example of private contracting. They operate with public tax dollars, but they are governed (often without transparency) by private boards, which themselves operate under state regulations that tend to be extremely lax and poorly enforced. Here are two excellent examples of prominent advocates for traditional public schools and against school privatization dissecting, in depth, the ways that charter schools continue to rip off the public.

New Book Exposes How Charter Schools Regularly Find Ways to Select Students Who Will Be a Credit to the School

On September 10, Teachers College Press published a new book by Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner, of the University of Colorado at Boulder: School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape EnrollmentMommandi and Welner explore a topic that has emerged again and again in local examples of injustice over the years: Charter schools somehow manage to select their students despite that they advertise themselves as public schools, which are required by law to serve every student who comes through the door.

Back on January 20, 1960, when my family moved to the small town of Havre, Montana, my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to the office of Wilbur Swenson, then the school principal.  As the law required, Mr. Swenson assigned me to the 7th grade, and I began school immediately that morning. Despite that today most people must formally enroll at the school district’s main office, the requirement for universal enrollment still works the same way in public schools across the United States. Public schools are required by law to provide programming to serve the needs of all students and must protect their rights. Public schools are not permitted to choose their students.

Over the years, we have read story after story of charter schools that call themselves “public” but somehow cheat on this requirement and get away with it. Now Mommandi and Welner have summarized and explored all the ways charter schools cheat on this requirement, and the reasons why they do: “Our research… taught us that such philosophies about limiting access are not uncommon among charter school administrators. In fact, we discovered that the charter school system has in place a variety of incentives and disincentives that actually penalize charter schools if they pursue broad public access. By contrast, charter school administrators inclined to limit public access find their schools rewarded with more prepared students who are less expensive to educate and who generate plaudits from politicians and media looking for feel-good stories about schools with unusually high test scores.”

In the publicity Teachers College Press released about the new book, Mommandi and Welner provide a table of “13 broad categories containing the many different ways that charter schools shape their enrollment.” Charter schools have especially found ways to exclude students who require expensive special services: “(W)e found that students with special needs are harmed by several… types of practices including: school design and marketing that signals that these students are unwelcome; steering away parents during enrollment in part by explaining that the school has few resources or services that meet the needs of special education students; counseling out enrolled special-needs students, or telling them that if they remain they will be retained in grade; and of course, extreme and burdensome discipline.”

New Story Exposes For-Profit  Management Companies with “Sweeps Contracts” Reaping Huge Profits from Shady Real Estate Deals at the Expense of the Nonprofit Charter Schools They Manage

The Network for Public Education’s executive director Carol Burris reports:  “National Heritage Academies (NHA), the third-largest for-profit charter chain in the nation, is selling 69 of its more than 90 schools to a new corporation created just for the purchase. Charter Development Co., the real estate arm of NHA, will receive the payout from a sale that requires nearly $1 billion to finance. This massive transfer of public dollars into private wealth is running into some roadblocks, however, in NHA’s home state of Michigan. Both Charter Development Co. and National Heritage Academies are owned by J.C. Huizenga, an education reform entrepreneur… The sale of the 69 NHA campuses in seven different states, like the operation of Huizenga’s charter schools, is wrapped in secrecy, even though taxpayers have paid the mortgages for years.”

Most state laws require charter schools to be nonprofits. But many small private nonprofit boards turn over the operation of their charter school to a for-profit management company. Sweeps contracts are commonplace—contracts under which the nonprofit board turns over more than 90 percent of the school’s revenue to the for-profit management company without any transparency about how the management company will spend the funds. National Heritage Academies manages its 90 schools under sweeps contracts. “Other examples of sweeps contracts include the contract between the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy and the for-profit chain Accel Online Ohio, a Nevada limited liability company; the contract between the Northeast Raleigh Charter Academy, and its for-profit management Torchlight Academy Schools; and the contract between Ohio Virtual Academy and K12 Virtual Schools.”

Burris continues: In most cases, for-profit management is an attempt to get around Title 20 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which requires (charter) schools to be nonprofit organizations to be eligible to receive federal funding. The nonprofit school is a facade for the for-profit corporation… Ultimately, Huizenga’s charter school cash-out financed by the taxpayers will probably go forward.  Unless Congress acts and closes the loophole, the 139 for-profit corporations that manage more than 1,100 charter schools in the United States will continue to put profits before taxpayers and kids.  And more cash-outs funded at taxpayers’ expense will occur.”

Charter schools have been operating now for a quarter of a century, and we have watched their abuses city by city.  But the stories of violations of the public interest and and fraud and corruption have only become more complex as their operators figure out new ways to rip off public tax dollars and violate core principles of public education by quietly selecting their students and leaving students with expensive needs in the public schools.

We Need a Massive National Campaign to Protest School Privatization

Fighting the privatization of public education feels like an overwhelming challenge. Partly, because all kinds of vouchers (plain old vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts) are set up and funded by state legislatures, and charter schools are also set up and controlled (and too frequently poorly regulated) by state law,  the battle is fragmented from place to place.  Except for the money allocated every year out of the federal Charter Schools Program, begun in 1994 during the Clinton administration, school privatization is not driven by federal policy that affects all of us across the United States.  What happens in California and Arizona doesn’t have any effect on the public schools of Ohio where I live.  So why should I care about what happens in another state?

Then there is the question of why the problem of school privatization matters so much. While much of the research and advocacy materials about the impact of school privatization inspects the quality of the privatized school alternatives, I  believe that what ought to concern us most is the amount of money being driven out of the public schools that serve the mass of our children. The evidence shows that school funding in many states has fallen very significantly since the Great Recession in 2008 and that school privatization has contributed to that problem.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black,traces, for example, how funding charter schools depleted public school funding in Ohio during and after the Great Recession in 2008: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase. In 2013-14, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter.  Some went deeper in the red.  Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state… All told, charter schools received $7,189 per pupil in state funding.  Public school districts received less than half that amount.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

Once voucher and charter programs are well established, their proponents across the state legislatures ensure that they grow and expand.  Earlier this month, Steve Dyer showed how Ohio’s charter school program has continued to grow since Derek Black researched his book: “According to the latest Charter School funding report form the Ohio Department of Education, we are set to spend $999.7 million” on charter schools this year. And it isn’t because more students are attending charter schools: “It’s because Ohio politicians have continued bumping up the per pupil amounts flowing to charters. So now kids in Ohio charters, on average, get nearly $8,500  per pupil in state aid—about double what that same kid would receive in a local public school. As I’ve recounted for more than a decade, because of the way we fund charters (through the local school district deduction), that means that local property taxes have to subsidize charter school kids. It doesn’t take a Ph.D in Rocket Science to understand that, if you’re removing $8,500 in state aid from a district for a kid the district was only getting about half of that from the state to educate, the difference has to come from somewhere. This year, that subsidy is slated to be $148 million.  And in some districts, it’s really high. Like in Columbus where $62 million in local revenue has to subsidize the state funding deduction for charters.”

Three major reports published in the past two months confirm that when states set up private school tuition voucher programs and charter school programs, these privatized alternatives compete with public schools for dollars from state budgets.

  • In a February report for In the Public Interest, political economist Gordon Lafer documents that, “California is overpaying for online charter schools that are failing students.”  Online charters are a rapidly growing education sector in California: “In 2018-19, nearly 175,000 California students were enrolled in nonclassroom-based charter schools, representing 27 percent of all charter school students in the state… In 2014, just 18 percent of newly approved charter schools were nonclassroom-based; by 2019 that figure had reached 43 percent.  But this sector has also been plagued with repeated scandals and poor educational performance.”  Despite the passage of new regulation to prevent abuses: “Following a new stet of scandals that saw one of the largest charter school chains charged with defrauding the state of nearly $50 million, legislators imposed a two-year moratorium on authorizing new nonclassroom-based charter schools…. The moratorium expires at the end of 2021.”  Here is the primary problem identified in Lafer’s report: “It is common sense that the cost of operating an online charter school must be less than that of running a brick-and-mortar school. Yet California’s online charter schools, with very few exceptions, receive the same dollars per pupil as a physically existing school with classrooms, buses, a cafeteria, and maintenance and security staff. To the extent that funding for online charter schools exceeds the actual cost of operation, the government is wasting many millions of tax dollars that are desperately needed in school districts across the state.”
  • This week, the League of Women Voters of Florida released a shocking report on StepUpforStudents.org, a 20-year-old nonprofit, which has taken over administering all of that state’s voucher programs: “Step Up began with a mission to award vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools. It has grown to include vouchers… for students with special needs, students who have been bullied, students who are homeschooled, and students with reading difficulties… Step up for Students was created by venture capitalist John Kirtley in 2002, one year after Governor Jeb Bush’s administration established the first Florida Tax Credit voucher program…. By 2020, Step Up had total net assets of over a half billion dollars… Step Up is one of two Scholarship Funding Organizations authorized to administer five school choice scholarship programs in Florida. Step Up administers 99% of the contributions, while AAA Scholarship Foundation handles the remaining 1%.

Here is how the tax credit program administered by Step UP works: “Step Up receives donations from corporations who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on corporate and certain sales taxes owed to the state of Florida. Billions of dollars have been diverted to Step Up instead of having been deposited into the General Revenue to operate state government, including public schools.  These tax diversions have been cleverly labeled as ‘donations.'”  Step Up not only administers the state’s voucher programs, but it also oversees the programs it administers: “The Florida Department of Education’s Office of School Choice cannot supervise a program of this magnitude. The task of supervising over 1,800 private schools and tracking individual vouchers given to parents is huge and varied. Where students enroll must be verified. Some schools report vouchers for students who are not enrolled. Some vouchers are awarded to students who do not meet the family income requirement for their voucher. In addition, some vouchers allow parents to purchase supplies and services for students. These individual purchases must be tracked. This is where Step Up has stepped in. The Department of Education has outsourced oversight functions to the same private agency that also awards the scholarships.”  The rest of the report lists questionable practices in Step Up’s program compliance monitoring, and explains further how so-called charitable donations in Florida are in this case merely a means of avoiding paying taxes.

  • Finally there is Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain, the mammoth report from the Network for Public Education.  While only Arizona law permits the operation of for-profit charter schools, all the other states with charter school enabling legislation require the schools to be nonprofits. “However, those who wish to profit from charter schools have developed creative workarounds to evade state and federal laws. The for-profit management organization, commonly referred to as an EMO, finds individuals to create a nonprofit board. That board, which is appointed, not elected, enters into a contract with the for-profit to run the school. Some EMOs manage only one or two schools.  Others manage over ninety… Many operate using a ‘sweeps contract’ in which virtually all revenue, public and private, raised by the charter, is passed to the for-profit management corporation to run the school.  In other cases, the EMO contracts various services out to other for-profit provides, sometimes owned by the owners of the EMO… Whatever money is left over after the bills are paid can accumulate as profit.”

“In total we identified 1,237 charter schools that have contracts with for-profit organizations which control critical or complete operations of the schools, including management, personnel, and/or curriculum… While our research suggests that over 15 percent of all charter schools are operated for profit, the percentage of schools, however, belies the impact.  Based on our match of school names to federal 2018-2019 school year data, over 600,000 students are educated in charters run for profit…. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia presently have charter schools operated by for-profit corporations… Most of the schools are located in four states—Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Arizona… Together, the seven largest national chains (Academica, National Heritage Academies, The Leona Group, K12Inc., Charter Schools USA, Pansophic Learning/ACCEL, and Pearson/Connections Academy manage 555 schools.  At least one of the big chains operates in twenty-five states and the District of Columbia.”

In a 2016 report published by the Economic Policy Institute, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker showed how the expansion of charter schools destabilizes big city school districts: “(C)harters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools.”

Baker continues: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Bruce Baker and Derek Black summarize long trends and the recent reports bring the discussion into the immediate present.  The enormous and obvious question is: what can be done to stop the theft of public tax dollars from the public schools that serve the mass of our children and adolescents in the United States?  According to the most recent, September 2019 School Choice in the United States Report from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016, 47.3 million students were enrolled in public schools, and 3 million students were enrolled in charter schools.  The same report concludes: “In fall 2015, some 5.8 million students (10.2 percent of all elementary and secondary students) were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools.” Obviously not all of those private school students are paying for their private education with public tax vouchers of various kinds or with tuition tax credits, but clearly the number of students using vouchers pales compared to public school enrollment. Another National Assessment of Education Statistics report updates public school enrollment in 2020: “Total enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools increased from 47.2 million students to 50.7 million students between fall 2000 and fall 2017.”

Clearly the information is voluminous about the expense of school privatization and about widespread corruption.  I wonder why we who support our nation’s strong and historically significant system of public education are too shy to mount a massive campaign to oppose school privatization. It is understandable that we are reluctant to pit ourselves against our friends and neighbors who use privatized alternatives. But the cost has grown too high. We don’t need to personalize the attack.  Can we not stand against the consumerist marketplace and stand up for the social contract—for the public good—for the public schools that protect our children’s rights by law and ensure that schooling is available in every community across this nation? These programs operate state-by-state, but this is a national problem.

NY Times Publishes Major Expose of Detroit’s Charter School Catastrophe

Kate Zernike’s extraordinary expose in yesterday’s NY Times about K-12 education in Detroit, Michigan is a must-read.  The headline describes the reality today in Detroit: For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools.  This post will summarize Zernike’s critique, but you’ll need to read her piece to learn how Detroit’s school-choice realities are being felt by the city’s poorest parents—who must spend hours delivering their children to schools spread across the 140 square mile school district where public transportation is inadequate and many charters do not provide any busing.  You’ll also learn how unregulated, awful schools are truncating the futures of the children Zernike profiles.

Zernike narrates the history of Detroit’s school marketplace.  In 1993, John Engler, Michigan’s “free-market-inclined governor,” “embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run….” “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools.  It got competition, and chaos. Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produce a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States. While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”

Lack of regulation was a cornerstone of school choice in Detroit from the very beginning. School districts, community colleges and public universities can authorize and supposedly oversee charter schools, and they get an incentive of 3 percent of the state dollars paid to each charter school they sponsor.  “And only they—not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education—could shut down failing schools.”  Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit management companies: “The companies and those who grant the charters became major lobbying forces for unfettered growth of the schools, as did some of the state’s biggest Republican donors. Sometimes they were one and the same, as with J.C. Huizenga, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur who founded Michigan’s largest charter school operator, the for-profit National Heritage Academies.  Two of the biggest players in Michigan politics, Betsy and Dick DeVos—she the former head of the state Republican Party, he the heir to the Amway fortune and a 2006 candidate for governor—established the Great Lakes Educational Project, which became the state’s most pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative…  Even as Michigan and Detroit continued to hemorrhage residents, the number of schools grew.  The state has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools.” Huizenga even managed to get a law passed by the state legislature that permits for-profit charter companies not to pay taxes on any properties they lease to schools.

It is a free-for-all that has failed the children but has at the same time been profitable for the charter management companies and their sponsors: “With about $1.1 billion in state tax dollars going to charter schools, those that grant  the charters get about $33 million. Those institutions are often far from the schools; one, Bay Mills Community College, is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, nearly 350 miles away—as far from Detroit as Portland, ME., is from New York City.”

Zernike profiles families whose children have changed schools multiple times after parents, drawn by incentives and promises of quality education, discover they have been sold a myth: “With all the new schools, Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than it needs.  The competition to get students to school on count day—the days in October and February when the head count determines how much money the state sends each school—can resemble a political campaign.  Schools buy radio ads and billboards, sponsor count day pizza parties and carnivals.  They plant rows of lawn signs along city streets to recruit students, only to have other schools pull those up and stake their own.”

Finally this year, as the legislature set out to develop a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from years’ of deficit spending by a succession of state-appointed emergency managers, it seemed as though there would be a way incorporate some charter oversight as part of the plan, but it didn’t work out.  Mayor Mike Duggan, “proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate… Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, the mayor got a Republican senator from Western Michigan to sponsor legislation, including the commission.  Governor Snyder, distracted and shamed by the scandal over the lead poisoning in the water supply of the mostly black and state-controlled city of Flint, was in no position to defend the state control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal… But the Great Lakes Education Project and other charter school lobbying groups warned that the commission would favor public schools over charters…. In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission.”

Please read For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools.  This blog has covered the problems in the Detroit Public Schools here.

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.”