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.

Outcry Grows Over Charter School Waste, Fraud, and Mismanagement

Once you have a burgeoning, unregulated private sector in a democracy,  how do you build sufficient political will to get some regulation in place, especially when the unregulated sector is using its profits in savvy ways to contribute to the campaigns of the politicians who are responsible for imposing the regulation?

There are a lot of people grappling with this challenge right now in relation to the charter schools that have sprung up across America’s big cities.  Although I have personally heard Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, say, “Good charter schools are part of the solution; bad charter schools are part of the problem,” I have never heard Secretary Duncan make any proposal for regulating the bad charters.  This despite that Duncan’s Department of Education has had a lot to do with the rapid increase in the number of charters. In order even to apply for Race to the Top funding, states had to remove any statutory caps they might have previously imposed on the authorization of new charters in any one year.

Even Robin Lake, whose Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington has promoted the expansion of charter schools through “portfolio school reform,” worried about lack of regulation of charter schools when she visited Detroit.   In Detroit, Lake said charters “have created a lot of new opportunities, and a lot of great new schools are up and running as a result,”  but “not enough attention has been paid to quality and equity access in Detroit.” She said that today Detroit has a massive oversupply of schools but “a lack of high-quality seats.”  She said parents “are having a difficult time navigating their options.”  “What’s happening in Detroit is very messy right now.”  “It’s not clear who’s keeping an eye on the city’s schools and making sure that every neighborhood has access to a high quality school.”

In a new article in The Nation, Pedro Noguera describes charter school operations as too often not open to public scrutiny despite the receipt by these schools of public tax dollars: “Charters were supposed to be laboratories for innovation  Instead, they are stunningly opaque… In several cities throughout the country, there is a fierce conflict raging over the direction of education reform.  At the center of this increasingly acrimonious debate is the question of whether or not charter schools—publicly funded schools that operate outside the rules (and often the control) of traditional public-school systems—should be allowed to proliferate.”

Last week three organizations—the Center for Popular Democracy, Integrity in Education, and Action United—released a report on Fraud and Financial Mismanagement in Pennsylvania’s Charter Schools.  The report, which documents $30 million in outright fraud that has been uncovered in Pennsylvania’s charter schools since 1997, declares: “The current system of oversight relies heavily on information provided by charter schools themselves and traditional audits that are designed to check accuracy rather than detect and prevent fraud.”  The authors note the burden that falls on under-funded public school districts like Philadelphia’s to uncover and investigate charter school fraud within their district boundaries, a project that cannot be adequately staffed in a financial crisis when public school school counselors, school nurses and thousands of teachers have been cut by the district.  The report suggests that Pennsylvania’s legislature “establish a moratorium on new charter schools until these recommendations are met.”

The Ohio Education Association and a public policy organization, Innovation Ohio, have just launched a website that, while it does not expose outright fraud, documents the total amount of public tax money flowing away from each of the state’s more than 600 school districts to particular charter schools:  knowyourcharter.com.  This is an interactive site, where anyone can explore the flow of funds from a particular school district to any of the state’s charter schools.  One can learn, for example, that this year over $9,821,390 is flowing away from the Cleveland Municipal School District to two of Ohio’s most notorious virtual academies—the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the Ohio Virtual Academy (a K12 affiliate).

Jeff Bryant, in a far-reaching investigation for salon.com, The Great Charter School Rip-Off, traces growing public awareness about poor regulation of charter schools from state to state.  Too often, says Bryant, parents and citizens have no democratic input into the process of authorizing charter schools when instead, “charters are being imposed on communities—either by legislative fiat or well-engineered public policy campaigns.”  Bryant describes a new plan to charterize York, Pennsylvania’s public schools, where the two charter companies being considered are Mosaica—which just left Muskegon Heights, Michigan halfway through its contract to run that district when it was unable to turn a profit—and Charter Schools USA, reported by the Florida League of Women Voters to have been “running a real estate racket…” that partnered Charter Schools USA with Red Apple Development Company “in a scheme to lock in big profits for their operations and saddle county taxpayers with millions of dollars in lease fees every year.”

It seems there is lots of awareness of widespread problems in the way charter schools are operated in one state or another, but fraud or mismanagement in one state does not seem to prevent gullible charter authorizers in other states from hiring the very same management companies.  Too many charters seem to be able to find  dollars to invest in extravagant advertising like the nearly half-million dollars raised from venture capitalists by Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy for TV ads aired across New York City last week.  And charter school owners like William Lager of Ohio’s ECOT, who has made over $100 million since 2001 in profits from two privately held companies he owns—Altair Management Company and IQ Innovations that provide all services for ECOT—continue to be able to invest heavily in the political campaigns of candidates for the state legislature.  Plunderbund, the Columbus Ohio blog, reports that since 2000, William Lager has contributed $1,444,242.46 to the political coffers of Ohio legislators.

One can only hope that increased reporting of misspending and outright fraud will stimulate a growing revolt by citizens who want to protect public education as well as the public’s right to ensure stewardship of tax dollars.  Martha Woodall in the Philadelphia Inquirer, reports that public officials in Pennsylvania expressed gratitude for last week’s report from the Center for Popular Democracy, Integrity in Education, and Action United: “State Auditor General Eugene De Pasquale said, It’s ‘good that they put this together.  To me, the more voices on this the better.  I think in the next term in the legislature, there is going to be a charter-reform bill move forward.'”  Woodall quotes Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz: “We certainly agree with the need for greater oversight and auditing.  That’s been one of our constant themes.”