by Félix Pérez; image courtesy of Morgan D
The Woodward Academy is one of four Detroit-area charter schools closing this month because of chronic academic deficiencies or financial difficulties. Students, families and educators were given little or no notice, leaving them scrambling to find answers and last-minute alternatives, and in the case of some educators, hoping they will get paid.
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Michigan’s lax charter accountability standards have long been chronicled. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and a group she funded and governed, the Great Lakes Education Project, are central figures in eliminating legislative language in a bill that would have established a commission to oversee charter school openings and closings in Detroit. Right after state legislators removed the commission language from the bill — during a seven-week period — DeVos and her husband, Dick, gave $1.45 million to the legislators who voted to strip the commission language from the bill, according to the Detroit Free Press.
In Michigan, DeVos’ home state, 4 out of 5 charter schools are managed by for-profit companies, far more than any other state. Michigan charter schools receive more than $1 billion a year from taxpayers. But thanks to DeVos, GLEP and other deep-pocketed charter school proponents, state laws regulating charters are among the nation’s weakest, and the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated, found the Detroit Free Press after a yearlong investigation.
The investigation, which reviewed two decades of charter school records, found:
- Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders.
- Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records.
- No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.
- A record number of for-profit charter schools that refuse to detail how they spend taxpayer money, saying they’re private and not subject to disclosure laws.
The news article concluded:
Michigan’s laws are either nonexistent or so lenient that there are often no consequences for abuses or poor academics. Taxpayers and parents are left clueless about how charter schools spend the public’s money, and lawmakers have resisted measures to close schools down for poor academic performance year after year.
Detroit has been especially hard hit by the unchecked growth of a charter school industry that woefully lacks accountability and transparency. Twenty-four charter schools have opened in the city since the legislature passed a law in 2011 that lifted the cap on their number. Eighteen charter school management companies whose schools were at or below the district’s performance expanded or opened new schools. The law repealed a requirement that the state’s Department of Education issue yearly charter school performance reports.
“People here had so much confidence in choice and choice alone to close the achievement gap,” Amber Arellano, the executive director of the Education Trust Midwest, which advocates higher academic standards, told the New York Times. “Instead, we’re replicating failure.”
This year, Detroit elected officials, educators, business leaders and members of the philanthropic community, faced with the reality that city’s charter schools and traditional public schools were on the verge of bankruptcy, proposed a commission to set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate.
But the Great Lakes Education Project, which along with DeVos killed a similar statewide commission six years earlier, and other charter school groups were able to keep the commission out of a financial rescue package passed by legislators.
Meanwhile, families at Woodward Academy are struggling to find what school they will send their children to in the fall. Parents and staff found out in April the school was being closed because of poor academic performance.
“I’m kind of shocked because they had such a great program and the teachers are helpful. I’m actually very shocked,” Porschua Reliford, who just transferred her three kids into the school in January, told Chalkbeat.
“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. Woodward is the third school that her two fifth-graders have attended. Her first-grader is on his second school.
The Trump-Devos education budget request includes a $168 million boost for charter schools, as well as a $1 billion increase for Title I school districts that allow Title I money to follow students to the public school of their choice, a potential boon for charter schools. DeVos has not set forth what, if any, accountability standards will apply to charter schools that use the taxpayer funds.