Monday, August 29, 2016

MI: Boatloads of Money

“People should get a fair return on their investment,” said former state schools Superintendent Tom Watkins, a longtime charter advocate who has argued for higher standards for all schools. “But it has to come after the bottom line of meeting the educational needs of the children. And in a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.”

That's from a stunning profile of the charter industry in Michigan that ran last week in the Detroit Free Press. In that must-read piece, Jennifer Dixon gives detailed and sprawling picture of just how bad things are in Michigan.

These days it seems as if there's a wide consensus that for-profit charters are a bad idea (even as folks pretend not to notice that not-for-profits can be just as bad). But in Michigan, for profit charters are still the law of the land, favored and widespread, making Michigan Exhibit A in the story of Why For Profit Charters Have No Business existing.

In Michigan, the authorizers of charters are primarily universities, and I suppose some folks would think that putting institutions of higher learning in charge of the gateways and oversight of charter schools would help keep things honest. But that's not how it's working out.

Consider for instance the case of University YES Academy. Allie Gross at the Detroit Metro Times (the newspaper with the most ill-considered website heading ever-- really, folks? "NEWSHITS"??) has been covering this story and you can catch the full details here and here. The management company running the school was such a mess that the teachers voted to form a union, so the operator of the school dissolved the management company, negating all previous contracts-- and then the same person created a new management company with a new name. The NLRB got involved, and the management company folded their hand and sold the school to another management company, which appears to have bought the school only so that they could close it at the last minute before the beginning of the school year and force the students to go to the company's other school-- thirteen miles away.

This is just one example of charter awesomeness in Michigan-- and some of the players here are supposed to be among the top exemplars.

Yes, that's Bay Mills CC right up there

At the point that the NLRB got involved, the school's authorizer sent a letter saying the school might lose its authorization. But if the authorizer doesn't seem quite up on what the Detroit-based charter is up to, that might be because that authorizer is almost 350 miles away from the school.

That authorizer is Bay Mills Community College, a two-year tribal college with about 430 part-time and full-time students. It offers Associate Degrees in Education and Early Childhood Education; it offers seven education courses, two of which are on-line courses, and one of which is a study skills course for first year college students. But BMCC is the authorizer for a whopping forty-one charter schools in Michigan, a large number of which are in the Detroit area and none of which are near the college because, well, nothing is near the college. However, charter money at this point must be a hefty chuck of BMCC income. Given the size of BMCC's student body and the size of its charter portfolio, I'm wondering if BMCC is an actual college that does some authorizer work on the side, of a charter authorizer that teaches some classes on the side.

That's just one example that happened to come across my desk this week. The Free Press piece has many more, illustrating the degree to which Michigan taxpayers have been fleeced. One billion-with-a-B dollars of taxpayer money has poured into charter coffers-- per year!-- with little or nothing to show for it. Just the subheadings alone in the article tell the story--

Often no consequences for poor performance
State law sets no qualifications for charter applicants
No guidelines for when a charter should be revoked
Taxpayer money can be hidden from public view
Mixed results academically, less spending in the classroom
Loopholes in Michigan law allow insider deals and nepotism
Authorizers, management companies work closely-- too closely?

Alongside many, many tales of charter shenanigans in the story are some hard words from charter supporters.

“The theory of charters was if you remove elected school boards, a centralized bureaucracy and powerful unions, that you would get better student achievement. The evidence so far, in Michigan and around the country, is ... some charters work and some don’t,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a think tank that financially supports nine schools in Detroit, including eight charter schools

“On average, if there are gains, they’re marginal at best.”

Or this from a representative from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, who, after saying that authorizers should never approve schools with boards chosen by the management company, has this to say about the old "So what if they hoover up taxpayer money, as long as they do a good job" argument.

Richmond, whose organization is pro charter, said even if a charter school does deliver academic excellence, that’s no excuse if taxpayers are gouged.

“I can’t think of any other area of public or private enterprise that would agree to be ripped off by someone as long as they were providing a nice product.”

There's no question that Detroit, where democracy has been suspended for the non-wealthy and non-white citizens, gets the worst of it. But Michigan seems to be in the grip of some sort of Anything For A Buck disease that threatens both education and other public services. The purpose of charter schools in Michigan is to give investors a good return on their money; educating students is a minor consideration, far behind making boatloads of money in importance. Here's hoping that more people start asking the big question-- what good is it to have a boatload of money if your ship is sinking?

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to my world.

    Jennifer Dixon only highlighted the worst of the MI worst. There are lots of charters where student test scores are OK to good, and they are getting zero scrutiny, despite destroying the surrounding public school ecology and misuse of taxpayer dollars.

    Sometimes, when I hear about how awful things are in _________ (name your own state, at least two dozen states vie for Worst Charter State Ever), I think: Hey. Come to Michigan. We're the "mature" charter state--where you can see what 25 years' worth of this crap does to public education.

    Thanks for highlighting. Will share, widely.