Michigan’s failed experiment with for-profit charter schools gets national attention


It’s nothing new for us. We’ve been talking for years about Michigan’s failed experiment with for-profit charter schools. Now, however, it would seem that word is getting out to the rest of the country. The following clip comes from today’s Washington Post.

Charter schools were originally conceived as centers of experimentation and innovation where educators could try new approaches quickly on a small scale with a minimum of paperwork. Many charters have lived up to that promise, but that same openness that allows new ideas to flourish may also have left the sector vulnerable to a dangerous level of corruption.

For decades, Michigan and Florida have been on the cutting edge of shifting public education into the private sector. These policies were based on a deeply held and often explicitly stated belief that choice and market forces could net only solve education’s problems but could also alleviate much of the need for regulation.

Now recent investigations from the Detroit Free Press, South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, and the Florida League of Women Voters have painted a troubling picture of two out-of-control charter school systems.

Starting under the administrations of former governors John Engler and Jeb Bush, both Michigan and Florida have been early and enthusiastic backers of the charter school movement and have been particularly receptive to for-profit management companies. While many states prohibit full-service, for-profit companies from running charters, Michigan, and to a lesser extent Florida, has encouraged the model.

“Michigan has one of the least restrictive environments for charter schools in the entire nation,” said Casandra Ulbrich, vice president of the state Board of Education,” …“We basically opened the door to all types of different charter schools, most of which are run by for-profit management companies, and it’s led to a lot of issues, primarily… financial oversight and transparency.”

…(F)aith in the ability of market forces to supplant regulation and oversight was so strong that lawmakers in both Michigan and Florida deliberately chose to forgo conventional oversight. Governor Engler made this point clear when he explained why, despite mounting scandals, the Michigan Department of Education does not need more authority over charters.

“The oversight is ultimately the parent, just like it has always been,” Engler said. “The parent moved if (the traditional school) wasn’t working, but that was limited economically. It’s a question that misses the broader point: What goes on in schools should be the focus. The whole focus should be on education… The structural questions, frankly, are missing the point.”

This philosophy contributed to extraordinarily opaque systems in both Michigan and Florida. The Detroit Free Press reports:

Management companies insist — without much challenge from the state — that taxpayer money they receive to run a school, hire staff and pay suppliers is private, not subject to public disclosure.

Quisenberry, the president of the Michigan charter schools association, said school expenditures are “appropriately public” while “things that would be related to the company itself and its internal operations are appropriately private.”

And, guess what? Without oversight, the corruption has become rampant, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. Here’s just one small example from the list, which is growing longer by the day.

…Michigan’s largest charter school management company, which also has extensive real estate holdings, charges the state so much in rent that it gets a 16 percent rate of return on its investment, roughly double the return for comparable commercial properties.

As John Chamberlin, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Michigan, said: “When you say, ‘Line up here and you can scam the state,’ you shouldn’t be surprised if people line up and scam the state”…

I don’t know about you, but I don’t much like seeing my home state held up in front of the rest of the country as a cautionary tale. I mean, I’m glad that the rest of the country has an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, but I’d really rather it was Texas or Arizona serving as the cautionary tale, and not Michigan, the state that gave us the sit down strike, the 40 hour work week, and the middle class.

Sadly, though, over the past 20 years, we allowed this to happen.

Despite the clear warning signs, we allowed private companies to loot our public coffers at the expense of our children.

We allowed the Republican legislature to remove the caps on for-profit charters, while reducing oversight.

We sat by and watched as our public schools were shuttered and replaced by for-profit entities with no allegiance to our communities.

We voted for candidates who aggressively sought to pull for-profit charter companies into our state, to the point where, today, one quarter of our nation’s for-profit charter schools are here, in Michigan.

We watched passively as the profession of teaching was first attacked and then systematically dismantled.

Convinced by the likes of the Koch brothers that it was greedy teachers, with their “gold-plated benefits,” that were sucking our communities dry, we allowed union protections to dissolve.

We looked on silently as experienced educators were forced from their classrooms only to be replaced by young college graduates given the impossible task of reading scripts and handing out tests to ever swelling classes of disengaged kids.

And now we’re paying the price.

Our most promising young people are fleeing our state as soon as they’re old enough to, and new families aren’t coming here to take their places.

We should be ashamed of ourselves.

This entry was posted in Education, Michigan and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Demetrius
    Posted August 12, 2014 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    For nearly 40 years (i.e. since the Reagan era), there has been a well-orchestrated and well-funded campaign to convince people that all “public” institutions are, by their very nature, bloated, wasteful, and inefficient … and that the “private sector” is always leaner, meaner, and more effective.

    Yet, despite mounting evidence that, in many areas — and especially in education and health care — this is patently false, the vast majority of Americans (and Michigan residents, apparently) continue to believe the propaganda.

    Everybody knows that Michigan’s K-12 education system has been in a downward spiral for at least the last 25 years … but I’ll bet if you asked average people on the street, most would be way quicker to blame “bloated bureaucracies” or “greedy teachers’ unions” than to identify the actual causes.

  2. EOS
    Posted August 12, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink


    Charter schools do no better or no worse than public schools in terms of educational outcomes. But they do it at a significantly lower cost.

  3. John Galt
    Posted August 12, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    A shelf full of Ayn Rand books and brochures from the Creation Museum can do the job of educating our children just fine.

  4. Elviscostello
    Posted August 12, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Awesome, EOS. Let’s find people who will teach for minimum wage. Fucking brilliant. Better yet, maybe we could get other countries to send their folks over here in a reverse Peace Corps and do the job for free.

  5. john
    Posted August 12, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Choice, innovation, and options are great for everyone involved; the public school system is definitely too restrictive and there should be room for genuine innovation. But Michigan under Snyder is clearly interested in privitization for its own sake. They’ve favor gigantic education companies (that are often involved in other large public sector things–the biggest ed provider in Detroit is closely tied to the biggest prison contractor in the area), instead of smaller ones headed by teachers, principals, etc that have innovative ideas culled from experience. These large for-profit companies are almost by definition going to look for loopholes that will allow them to make the most money, and they’re going to be more interested in the bottom line than in their students’ or staffs’ well-being. Those two goals will often overlap–in the same way that customer service is sometimes a priority at Taco Bell and sometimes clearly not–but the MI laws are now set up so that plenty of money can be made while harm is done to teachers and students.

  6. Dan
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    honestly, are the “regular” public schools performing any better? Why is it ok for unions to rob the tax payers, and not ok for corporations to?

    both should be ashamed of their performance.

  7. Posted August 15, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Where did my comment about the disappeared post about Lauren Bacall go?

  8. anonymous
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    It went up to heaven to be with Lauren Bacall.

  9. Demetrius
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    NYT: Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost.

    “While other states — Miron cited Ohio, Texas and Arizona — also emerged as exemplars of the “competitive” model, most have since reintroduced some regulation. “Michigan is still an outlier,” Miron said. “No state comes near us when it comes to privatization.”

    The results have been stark. The 2016 report by the Education Trust-Midwest noted:

    Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live. … ”


2 Trackbacks

  1. […] if you haven’t seen it, is video the of the event, during which everything from the rampant proliferation of for-profit charter schools across Michigan to the recent scandals concerning the privatization of our prison food industry were touched on. If […]

  2. […] One last thing… Here’s a clip from something I posted back in August 2014, after the Washington Post suggested that Michigan’s charter system was ineffective, corrupt, a…. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Carrie Banner