Charter school supporters’ response to investigations is "Soviet" in style

Jul 7, 2014

Late last month, the Detroit Free Press published a stunningly comprehensive look at Michigan’s charter schools.

A team of journalists spent more than a year looking at every charter school in the state. They interviewed hundreds of people, examined thousands of documents, and used sophisticated computer techniques to analyze data.

What they discovered was stunning and shocking. While some charters do an excellent job, many don’t. There is essentially no effective oversight, and bad schools stay open year after year.

The investigation found, as you might expect, cases of wasteful spending; one charter near the Ohio border paid millions for essentially worthless swampland. But to me, far more troubling was that the newspaper found that in some cases, board members had been forced out for demanding financial information from the management companies that ran the schools.

The investigation found that state law doesn’t prevent those running the schools from getting rich at taxpayer expense. In fact, Michigan has more for-profit charter schools than any other state.

The Free Press has put all of this online on its website, together with video interviews and information about its methodology.

I expected those who support and run charter schools to respond critically to the series. I waited to see what their side of the story would be, and was prepared for them to perhaps offer a different perspective on some aspects of all this.

But I was in fact shocked by their reaction. Last week, I watched Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, on the public affairs show Off the Record.

What I thought he would do was admit that the charters have had some problems but are taking steps to fix them.

But he did nothing of the sort. His response reminded me of nothing so much as something out of the Soviet Union in the bad old days. According to Quisenberry, nothing is wrong with charter schools. The newspaper series was all wrong. We gave them correct information, but they didn’t choose to use it. Charters are great.

Even worse was a piece of blatantly ideological propaganda this weekend in the Center for Michigan’s usually superb online magazine Bridge by someone named Greg McNeilly, president of something called the Michigan Freedom Fund. The author strung together right-wing slogans to claim the newspaper deliberately got everything wrong, because it “was in lockstep with the MEA,” the teachers’ union, and was willing to lie “to meet a union agenda.”

I was frankly as ashamed of the Center for publishing this, as I would be if they reprinted a Maoist pamphlet. To me, the nature of the charters’ response only confirmed the newspaper’s findings. And here’s why this matters so much:

Charter schools are public schools. They currently get a billion a year from Michigan taxpayers. They should be fully and completely transparent and accountable. Following the newspaper series, even the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers said Michigan needs more accountability.

Getting the legislature to agree, however, may be difficult, at least without public pressure. But making charter schools comply with reasonable standards is essential for the future.

Our kids’ future, which also means, our own.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.