Letter: Charter grant concerns State Board

The Detroit News

Re: Ingrid Jacques’ May 16 column, “Michigan education board holds up $47 million for charter school”:

This month, the State Board of Education was presented with grant criteria that ultimately could spend $47 million in taxpayer money on new and expanding charter schools. As elected board members, we raised legitimate questions about the need and the nature of these expenditures, following the release of a national research report indicating that over $1 billion of similar grant funds have been awarded to entities that either never opened a school, or opened and then closed.

A classroom.

First, let’s review the need.

In the 2002-03 school year, Michigan educated 1,713,165 public K-12 students. Last year, that number fell to 1,507,772. That’s a drop of over 200,000 students. The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that public school enrollment will continue to decline by another five percent by 2025.

Despite these declines, Michigan’s public education system continues to expand. Since 2008, 226 charter schools have opened in Michigan (38 have closed). For every new school, there are additional costs to the system, including administration and, as often is the case with Michigan charters, profit.

All this new school creation has not led to increased achievement for students. In fact, Michigan has seen the opposite. According to the Nation’s Report Card, in 2003 Michigan fourth-grade students were ranked 28th in the nation for reading scores. Last year, we ranked 35th, and in fourth-grade math, 38th.

Michigan is spending more money to educate fewer children and is getting worse results. Michigan needs a sustainability strategy if we are going to continue opening more schools to educate fewer kids.

The second major concern we expressed relates to the results of the last round of federal charter school grants. From 2010-15, 186 Michigan entities were approved for funding under this grant program. Of those, 67 received funding but never opened a charter school.

I reviewed a prior grantee’s award and found that this outfit was paid nearly $104,000 of taxpayer money and never opened a charter school. Over $80,000 of those taxpayer funds were used to pay the salaries of three people, and another $10,000 paid “consultants.” I have since asked to review other previous grants.

While the current grant will have additional oversight in place, members of the State Board of Education still have concerns about the nature of the grants and the level of oversight. In other words, we are conducting the due diligence required of us on behalf of the taxpayers of this state.

The editorial indicated that the State Board of Education “gave its blessing” to the state’s grant application when the board consisted of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. This never happened. The application for this grant was submitted on April 19, 2018. It never came before the State Board and therefore, the Board did not have the opportunity to support or reject the application, regardless of Board makeup.

The editorial also indicates that charter schools “dominate” the list of Michigan’s highest performing high schools. Based on the state’s index system — approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as Michigan’s school accountability system — this simply is not true. Only three charter schools that offer high school grades rank in the Top 100 of Michigan’s federally-approved Index system.

The State Board of Education is elected by the voters in Michigan to provide appropriate public education oversight, and will continue to do so.

Casandra E. Ulbrich, president

State Board of Education