Opinion
10:01 am
Mon June 23, 2014

Why Michigan charter schools need more regulation and oversight

There are those who say newspapers are dead, a relic of journalism’s primitive days before Google, before phones in our pockets connected everyone to everyone else.

Well, there is no doubt that the traditional economic model that allowed “dead tree journalism” to flourish is in trouble. There’s little doubt that lots of us no longer have the reading habits needed for so-called “long-form” journalism.

But there’s also no doubt that this is a tragedy, because at their best, newspapers do something other media can’t. That’s on display this week in the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper spent a year investigating Michigan’s charter schools and how the state oversees them.

Yesterday, the paper began rolling out a mammoth, eight-day series unlike any I’ve ever seen. These are stories that everyone in this state who has kids, knows kids, or has any interest in our future should read. I should stress that these are in fact “stories,” not a bureaucratic report.

They make for fascinating and – so far – depressing reading. The installments tell the tale of an education experiment run amok. Charter schools were started exactly 20 years ago as an alternative to public schools that weren’t doing the job. Today, nearly one in every ten Michigan students is in a charter school.

A few are doing an excellent job. But overall, on average, the education provided by Michigan’s charter schools is slightly worse, than in conventional public schools. Charter schools, we sometimes forget, are public schools in another form.

They get taxpayer dollars, and the newspaper’s investigation uncovered a pattern of abuses that make Kwame Kilpatrick look small-time. To quote the Free Press directly, their investigation found “wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders.”

It also found schools that were allowed to operate despite miserable academic records. Given human nature, you might have expected some of this, but that when it was uncovered, it would be followed by indictments, trials, disgrace and prison sentences.

But none of that has happened, for one reason. There are no state standards for who operates Michigan’s charter schools, and none for how to oversee them. That's incredible.

Michigan also leads the nation in schools run by for-profit entities. In other words, the state has given the fox the keys to the hen house, i.e, the treasury. There is no guardian.

These stories will be running all week, but it is already clear what the problem is. Not the concept of charters, but an incredible lack of oversight. Lawmakers need to give the state the tools it needs to make sure the system is working for the taxpayers and the kids. In states that do this, like Massachusetts, charters seem to be thriving as an important part of the education mix.

For the last 30 years, we’ve been behaving as though regulation and oversight were dirty words. They aren’t.

They are, like the sheriff in the old West, what makes civilization possible, and exactly what charter schools in Michigan need.

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.