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Editorial: For-profit charters aren’t that scary

The Detroit News

Michigan Democrats have sounded an alarm against charter schools for years, raising the specter of greedy for-profit corporations seeing children as dollar signs. That rhetoric is only growing in a pivotal election year. But facts should drive this debate — not scare tactics.

All the candidates vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination have made fighting charter schools a priority, with a focus on the schools that fall in the for-profit category.

Even Sen. Debbie Stabenow is getting on the anti-profit bandwagon by using U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a west Michigan native, as a campaign tool.

Stabenow recently sent out a fundraising email, talking about how DeVos is helping out “predatory” for-profit colleges by loosening the regulatory burden instated by the Obama administration.

Democrats similarly like to use DeVos to rile their base when it comes to the K-12 sector. Since DeVos advocated for the state’s charter school law in the 1990s, in addition to her unsuccessful attempts to expand private choice through vouchers, she is a prime target for teachers unions and Democratic candidates.

The implication — never backed up — is that DeVos is somehow “profiting” from charter schools.

When House Democrats introduced bills last fall that would crack down on charter schools, state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, stated: “People need to know that the tax money that goes to these organizations is being spent on kids and not corporate profits, and they want to know that they are acting in our kids’ best interest and not their own.”

So how scary are these for-profit charter schools? Recent reports shed some light:

■U.S. News & World Report came out with its school rankings earlier this month, and for the second year in a row, found a charter school to be the best open-enrollment (students are accepted in a lottery system) high school in Michigan. Grand River Preparatory High School in Kentwood came in at No. 4 in the state, but the top three schools are selective in their enrollment. Grand River Prep (one of only seven schools in Michigan to land a top gold medal ranking) is run by a for-profit management company: Grand Rapids-based PrepNet.

Similarly, Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a charter school, was the only open-enrollment school to win an award in Detroit. Just three Detroit schools made the list, and they all received bronze medals. Cass Tech and Renaissance, which are in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, were the other two, but they require prospective students to apply and take an exam.

■A study from the University of Michigan released this spring highlights that students at National Heritage Academies make substantial gains compared with their counterparts in traditional public schools. NHA is Michigan’s largest charter operator, as well as one of the largest for-profit charter school networks in the U.S. Also Grand Rapids based, NHA manages 48 of the state’s 295 charter schools, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

The UM authors found: “Consistent with prior lottery-based charter studies, we find that an additional year spent at an NHA charter is causally associated with positive test score gains in math, with smaller effects on reading scores.”

There are plenty more examples like these, but don’t expect Democrats to mention them on the campaign trail.