July 23, 2014 at 1:00 am


Labor Voices: Charter schools fail the test of time

Cook says charter schools' performance hasn't justified the state's massive investment. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Some 20 years ago, Michigan enacted legislation creating charter schools, with the goal of creating unique, innovative educational opportunities for students across the state. In the 20 years since, that goal has been replaced with a different goal: corporate profit.

For years, education experts have been critical of Michigan’s charter school laws, which have led to the creation of an industry generating hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate profits and less than stellar academic results.

Politicians have ignored critics who have pointed out massive failings in both the law charters operate under and the schools themselves — until now. The charter school industry in Michigan is fraught with wasteful spending, conflicts of interest and poor academic performance.

While there are high achieving charters in Michigan, they are the exception, not the rule.

What do taxpayers get for the $1 billion a year we spend on charters?

The facts and figures are shocking.

Nearly 40 percent of Michigan charter schools are deemed “low performing” by the state.

A majority of the worst-ranked charter schools have been open 10 years or more. The reporting found extreme reluctance on the part of authorizing agencies to close even the worst charters — perhaps due to the revenue they receive to authorize those schools.

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan said he will begin using his power to revoke the ability of some authorizers to open new charter schools. State legislative leaders have promised to re-examine laws governing charters.

Unfortunately, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature ignored academic and financial problems in Michigan charter schools last year when they lifted the cap on the number of charter schools that can be created.

In light of these failings and abuses, the Legislature should place a moratorium on the creation of any new charter schools.

In 1994, Gov. John Engler and legislative leaders envisioned the creation of charter schools by experienced educators with new ideas, along with committed parents looking for an alternative to traditional public schools. That is extremely rare. Instead, private, for-profit management companies flocked to Michigan to create charters and, in turn generate unparalleled corporate profits. While many states prohibit for-profit charter schools, Michigan has by far the highest percentage of for-profit charters in the nation — an astounding 80 percent.

Many states prohibit any entity without a proven record of success from opening a charter school; Michigan has no such restriction.

Charter school management companies are notoriously secretive with regard to their financial dealings.

Although publicly funded, corporate executives of Michigan charter schools fight the disclosure of even basic financial information.

In a number of charter schools across the state, board members of charters were forced off the board when they demanded financial information from their management company.

If a traditional public school district withheld financial information, the state would immediately halt their funding — but not so for charter schools.

The exorbitant investment in charter schools has had a devastating effect on traditional neighborhood schools.

In the last few years, Albion High School closed and the entire Buena Vista district closed its doors.

Today, 50 traditional public school districts are in deficit.

This is a direct result of the $1 billion cut to public education Gov. Rick Snyder pushed through in his first year in office.

At the same time, Michigan charter schools continue to receive — even the worst performing ones —$1 billion each year out of the education budget.

The price of school choice, especially one of such questionable value, should not be the destruction of traditional public schools.

Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.