Hosannas to Free Press for exposing charter failings

Let’s give credit where credit is due. The recent Detroit Free Press series on charter schools in Michigan illustrates perfectly just how vital an alert and aggressive news media is to the future of our state. How else would we have learned that:

  • Nearly $1 billion in taxpayer public money goes to charter schools every year. More than 140,000 students attend state-funded charters. In 2013-14 there were 296 charters operating 370 schools. Charters represent a large and growing portion of Michigan’s education system.
  • In most cases, nobody knows exactly how state money is spent by charters and by the private, often for-profit “full service management companies” that operate a majority of them. They argue that these details of how they spend taxpayer money are not subject to public disclosure. As a result, all kinds of ugly rumors persist about profiteering, self-dealing, nepotism in hiring, and collusion with unelected school boards – rumors that a fully transparent system would have cleared up (or caused to be cleaned up) long ago.
  • Although charters are intended to provide families with quality alternatives to public schools and provoke educational innovation, nearly 40 percent rank in the bottom quarter of state school rankings. How charters stack up with traditional public K-12 schools is a matter of intense debate – which indicates that the answer isn't clear.
  • The charter system lacks effective oversight, both by unelected school boards that often seem captives of the industry or by charter authorizers (many of them universities) which grant schools the ability to operate in Michigan and are supposed to oversee them. The Free Press found instances of long-term, very low-performing charters which had never been suspended. And the state sets no rigorous standards about who can set up a charter.

As is often the case when a newspaper breaks a bombshell story, the impact goes way beyond the headlines of the day and provokes prolonged debate about public policy.

This is how it’s supposed to work.

Momentum to reform

Governor Rick Snyder quickly announced the state should do a better job at holding all schools accountable, including charters. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) says the state should “tighten up” charter regulations and oversight.

And State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan last Monday announced he is notifying charter school authorizers that he will use his “statutory authority” to stop them from giving out new charters if their oversight performance doesn’t cut it.

He directed the Department of Education to “establish rigorous principles that measure the transparency, academic and financial practices of the charter schools of each authorizer. The result of these measures will determine which authorizers would lose their chartering capabilities.”

The Free Press said the Michigan Department of Education has never suspended a charter authorizer. Some members of the State Board of Education think Flanagan has had this authority all along.

For his part, Flanagan credited the newspaper: “This series of news articles has prompted me to think differently about whether to suspend an authorizer’s ability to open new charter schools. … This is not just about getting academic results. It’s about total transparency and accountability.”

The Free Press series also triggered comment from the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers and Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. He’s urging tougher state standards for accountability and financial transparency.


Not surprisingly, the Free Press series has drawn some comment that has been defensive and critical. Again, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Journalists are supposed to call ‘em as they see ‘em, letting the facts be their guide. What happens downstream after publication of a big story is vigorous public debate and better focused responsibility of policy-makers and the public at large.

What lies behind these arguments about charters is far more important than political and institutional squabbles. Most families enrolled in charter schools are poor or working class, exploring schools of choice, trying something new in hopes of finding something better than their local inadequate traditional public schools.

If we continue to offer charter schools as an educational alternative, but one that doesn’t provide a clearly better educational outcome, we’re spending taxpayer money on an expensive effort that does nothing to help our most vulnerable and needful kids.

What’s the sense in that?

I wouldn’t be surprised to see serious efforts in Lansing to toughen up what have been – up to now – pretty lax standards of transparency, accountability and institutional oversight over charter schools. Of course, there will be politics and posturing, wailing and gnashing of teeth. But we owe ourselves and our children the pain and effort to make sure they get the best possible schooling. Not to mention seeing that taxpayer money is well spent.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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MK Thayer
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 9:43am
My grandson just graduated from Fortis Academy. He was only there for 1 year, but the treachers, staff, and the administration were terrific. He had a great year. The school was supportive and caring. They addressed all his needs. Don't paint charter schools with a broad brush.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 9:51am
Total MEA crap. Phil, why don't you "expose" the public school K-12 failings. The State Department of Education just released the most recent data showing that only 17.8% of Michigan's high school graduates are ready for college level classes. That's an 82.2% failure rate. It also shows that students not in the 17.8% group are holding high school diplomas that are a total fraud. Adults in the public school system are stealing thousands of children's futures.
Chuck Lockwood
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 9:31pm
My, that comment certainly raised the level of conversation. Shall we guess it is slight above -5 base moron?
Dedra Downs
Mon, 07/28/2014 - 8:40am
The problem is that charters are worse than the public schools, and all the money goes to the top. Companies like the Leona group take our tax dollars out of state and do a poor job educating our students. These charters have ruined the community and the State of Michigan has closed schools in neighborhoods where there are children who need them. The State of Michigan has not secured the schools it closed and those Detroit assets have been left to rot and be vandalized. The State doesn't even cut the grass causing sever blight in Detroit neighborhoods. Students in charters have no organized sports, music, competitions. Each little charter is it's own little world unto itself. The residents of Detroit should take out a class action law suit against the State of Michigan.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 10:14am
If charter schools weren't meeting a need in education why would the number of them be increasing?
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 12:01pm
Mike, my best guesses would be: 1. Smart marketing; 2. Strong political support from business and the right, including the legislature and talk radio; 3. A carefully nurtured cultural contempt for teachers and public educators; 4. Decades of laziness on the part of some public schools; and 5. A desire on the part of some parents to segregate their children, if not by race, then by religion, economic status, or other cultural factors. In my opinion, the greatest danger we face with the proliferation of charter schools, schools of choice, and online education is not that the kids won't learn math as well. It is that we are further stratifying our society, which makes it all the more difficult to function as a nation, and that's not just socially harmful, it is dangerous. Still worth reading is Horace Mann's 12th Annual Report to the Massachusetts Board of Education (1848). He was speaking of Massachusetts, but his argument is universal and it is fully as relevant today as it was then. http://www.tncrimlaw.com/civil_bible/horace_mann.htm
Chuck Lockwodo
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 9:27pm
You have been exceptionally lucky with your charter school experience. Our grandson spent his first two years in a charter school. In the middle of his third year his parents put him back into public school when it became obvious that he was not keeping up with the reading and arithmetic skills that were expected with his age cohort. Since then that Charter School’s owners and principal officers have been charged with embezzling. The school is a mess and drains resources that are badly needed by our public school district. Fortunately his parents had to move to Colorado, a tragedy at the time, but an educational blessing for him . He will be starting his senior year, excellent scores on all exams, and offers for college. Had he been forced to stay in Michigan I doubt he would have the same educational opportunities. At one time I was for term limits, charter schools, and privatization. My naiveté is long gone and my patience is as short as my time left on earth. We’ve driven our state into the ground while Atlas Shrugged.
Dedra Downs
Mon, 07/28/2014 - 8:44am
Dedra Downs
Mon, 07/28/2014 - 8:42am
Because the for profit companies make big profits and use my tax dollars to market their mess.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 10:57am
Or you could elect representatives who do not ignore studies that for years have documented these problems specifically with Michigan charters for profit. While there are exceptions, we have known for a long time that the majority of charters perform no better than public schools when it comes to student achievement. And if we wonder why students continue to show little improvement over the years, we have only to look at the fact that our Republican leaders have "cut the fat" from public schools, meaning forced cuts in our centers of learning - everything from teachers, counselors, facilities and programs like arts, music, and physical education - all essential for teaching and stimulating creative, healthy kids. Instead, our majority leadership insisted that schools enter "the marketplace" to become centers for profit. Republican legislators have invested billions that have made absolutely no difference for students in decades, but have made a lot of money for testing companies and privatization of everything from food service to bus drivers. Do not blame public schools for disappointing results when so many obviously out-perform charters despite devastating cuts coupled with contempt and disrespect from our current leadership. This Lansing majority obviously hasn't got a clue about how to educate kids. It's time we all got serious about the impact of their educational experiments on the future of our kids and our state. I am grateful for the Free Press series as well, but public school educators have been saying the same thing for years. It's time someone finally listened.
Sue Whitney
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 11:19am
Every year I have a job that takes me into schools throughout Michigan. Throughout a school year I meet with and talk to hundreds of teachers and administrators to show literacy and math materials from the publishers I represent. The key point the Free Press made is the heads of some charter schools are using tax money to make a profit for themselves, a huge amount of profit. That can end if laws are made to prevent this from happening. The Free Press and Detroit News have both written articles in the past about corruption in the public schools too. This isn't about unions, it's primarily about how some charter school owners market their schools in very glossy terms to pull in as many students possible to create a profit for themselves. I emphasize this is some, not all schools. The next focus has to be about who is hired? Are the qualifications high? Is quality professional development built into the school year? Are people hired who have teaching degrees from universities that have the best programs? It is important for every parent to ask these questions.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 11:23am
Biased article. If public schools are failing with the money we spend on them, why not send it to charter schools? State funding of schools has not worked. We had better schools when the money was raised locally and utilized by local school boards.
Chuck Lockwood
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 9:33pm
Your solution is to spend more money on charter schools that aren't producing a meaningful learning experience for all children? How does that make sense?
Buddy Moorehouse
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 11:31am
Far more traditional public schools are not producing a meaningful learning experience for all children? How does THAT make sense?
Dedra Downes
Mon, 07/28/2014 - 8:47am
The article is sooo...... true.
J Hendricks
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 12:10pm
The discussion never ends...we can never spend enough money and we can never break the stranglehold of the Education empire (schools, certification, unions, textbook publishers, etc.). It infests the Charter schools as much as the public schools. It has taken over the once fabulous Catholic schools (who voluntarily go along with the inane certification requirements.) In the perfect world we would have no educational pre-requirements for operating or teaching in a school, we would have vouchers that follow the children wherever they choose to go. and then stand back as truly unbridled free enterprise kicks into gear. .... and yes - let the buyer beware. There will horrible failures and breathtaking successes, and new things taking place we cannot even imagine. Get the boot of government off our necks. Stop trying to control everything! (for our own good - of course)
Dedra Downs
Mon, 07/28/2014 - 8:49am
What has happened to the Catholic Schools is the shortage of Nuns who teach with a mission and passion for very little money.
Buddy Moorehouse
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 12:55pm
Phil, I have great respect for you, but this project deserves no hosannas. On the surface, this might have appeared to be great journalism - simply because they devoted so many pages to it - but it was very poor journalism on many fronts. Just two examples: 1. They couldn't get their basic facts correct. The Free Press repeatedly claimed, for example, that charter schools run by management companies don't have to publicly report teacher salaries. Quoting directly from the Freep: "Private management companies say they do not have to disclose detailed salary information of teachers and other staff because they work for the private company and not the school. The money spent on salaries usually is lumped under a broad category called purchased/contracted services." They are wrong. Private management companies DO have to report detailed salary information of teachers, and they DO follow this law. Just ask the AFT. They files FOIAs all the time to get this information. The law is MCL 380.503(6)(m). If the Free Press can't get a basic fact like this correct, how can we trust their reporting on anything? 2. There are seven members of the State Board of Education. Two of them - John Austin and Casandra Ulbrich - are closely allied with the unions and are anti-charter. Who were the only members of the State Board featured in the Free Press series? John Austin and Casandra Ulbrich. They never attempted to include the viewpoints of the State Board members who support charter schools, including Dr. Richard Zeile, who wrote a strong op-ed condemning the Free Press' findings. It's poor journalism to only quote the sources who tell you what you want to hear.
Tony Infante
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 2:06pm
Buddy, I think you ought to provide evidence of both the AFT FOIA's and what they reveal to make your first point compelling. There were also plenty of quotes in support of Charter Schools in the article. Bravo to the Freep and Mr. Power for reporting the facts as they were found. I wish I could share Phil's optimism that the Freep investigation will spur reform/investigation in Lansing -but hope it will. I think you should also (as a former journalist) have indicated that you are are paid to advocate on behalf of the the for-profit charter school industry in Michigan. Also, can you tell us if a Michigan law exists to report the compensation of the administrators of Michigan charter schools?
Buddy Moorehouse
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 8:10pm
Tony - Yes, charter schools have to report the names and salaries of all teachers AND administrators. This is exactly what the law requires them to report: "(iv) A current list of teachers and school administrators working at the public school academy that includes their individual salaries as submitted to the registry of educational personnel;" So the Free Press got it wrong, yes? One hundred percent wrong. And they have yet to acknowledge it - then again, that wouldn't fit their narrative. And yes, I'm the VP of Communications for MAPSA, the state charter school association. I make no attempt to hide my identity, but I'll accept that I could have included that in my comment!
Dedra Downs
Mon, 07/28/2014 - 8:55am
Charter school management companies are able to hide teacher salaries and lump them as purchased services. Sure you can get those salaries if you request them. But they are not publically listed and easy to see. Every thing the Free Press is saying is very, very, very, true.
Joe G
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 2:27pm
The FREEP article failed in one important respect. We need a rigorous analysis of how the academic result of charters and public schools compare for schools in comparable areas. I believe this would show that charters are doing much better than when mistakingly compared to state results for public schools as a whole.
John S.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 3:32pm
There's no simple answer regarding what's better or worse--public schools or charter schools. There's a lot of variability in performance within each category. It's alleged that public schools sometimes achieve poor outcomes because of school board politics and meddling, incompetent administration, unions and teacher tenure, problems of bureaucratic supply, difficult student populations, and lack of competition. With respect to charter schools, as the Free Press argues, there are likely greater problems of opportunism (owners and managers profiting and delivering far less than promised). The debate will go on, but progress in educational outcomes will ultimately depend on schools, whether public or charter, doing things that are known to work: hiring and retaining capable administrators, hiring and retaining capable teachers, adopting a stable curriculum, getting high levels of parental involvement, setting high academic standards, and demanding and getting hard work from students.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 5:12pm
Why don't Charter schools have to have the same regulations as public schools, since the are both funded by the state taxpayer's money!
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 10:03pm
Good question, Barbara. Charters are celebrated for not having the same restrictive regulations as public schools and are therefore unencumbered to try innovative approaches to education. If fewer regulations is such a good thing for charters, then why is there no discussion about loosening some of the administrative burdens placed on public schools?
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 9:00am
Phil - If the oversight/accountability grass is so much greener on the charter school side of the street, why have NO traditional school superintendents signed the school accountability pledge to operate under the additional requirements of charters? The pledge is here: www.ISupportThePledge.vom
Tom Black
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 10:18am
Kudos to the Freep if they truly have uncovered waste, fraud, nepotism and poor performance by charter schools. But wouldn't it be nice if the press would investigate the K-12 schools and higher education with as much vigor and thoroughness? Especially the latter, as millions of gullible young people pay exorbitant tuition and saddle themselves with crushing student loan debt only to earn a degree that's not worth the paper it's printed on. The return on dollars is too often abysmal. Higher ed in America is scandalous in its thievery and deception, yet remains pompous, insular and unaccountable.
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 11:50am
Thanks Phil for speaking up on this issue. I was afraid your sponsorship from Amway / DeVos might preclude that. There should be something said about the DeVos political and financial pushing of charter schools. They are much of the reason why we have this mess in terms of accountability and transparency. There was also little said about the ability of the charters to cherry pick students who will make them look could and avoid students who would hurt their scores. The public school scores are burdened by this and it's rarely cited.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 7:39pm
Capability is the real issue. It is not the individual school, charter or traditional, private or parochial, that is the cause of up to thirty percent of children not receiving a meaningful learning experience during their school years. Ken Robinson on ted.com, "How Schools are Killing Creativity". Listen for twenty minutes, if you can. The current system of education that governs schools is not capable of producing a meaningful learning experience for all children. (meaningful = able to demonstrate understanding of knowledge acquired in a manner relevent to the child's life context and their individual future learning journey) Unfortunate that the Free Press editorial staff chose to ignore that very real difficulty that children encounter and instead behaved more like a sensationalist tabloid. But, that does sell papers.
Brendon Pollard
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 1:10pm
While some charters are successful and that the majority of the staff and administrators at these schools truly care about their students'success, I posit that the true purpose of a "for-profit" charter operator is to wring as much profit out of the public money available. Is it any wonder that the vast majority of Michigan charters are K-8, where they don't have the increased overhead of high school facilities but get the same per pupil allowance? Think about it people. Thats where the profit margin is! We can't continue to hand over the future of our kids to the greed of corporate America.
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 4:16pm
Governor Snyder encouraged and signed the legislation that opened MI up to a greater number of charters. He could have pushed for more meaningful regulation of them, like reasonable voices urged at the time, but he didn't. His intention is to end the public school system, and to punish teachers for being unionized. In his eyes, and the eyes of the tea party no-government-is-good-government rabble of the legislature, teachers are greedy thugs and K12 et al are weapons that'll destroy significant Democrat power in MI. Snyder campaigned as a get-things-done pragmatist, and he fooled many voters with this lie. He has governed as the far right ideologue some voters suspected he'd turn out to be. Those voters were disappointed when legislative elections provided no check against this treachery. Naeyaert and Moorehouse are little more than apologists for charter theft of taxpayer dollars, as the Free Press series ably showed.