The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Major probe of Michigan charter schools finds wasteful spending, little accountability

This week the Detroit Free Press is publishing results from its year-long investigation into charter schools in Michigan, which has more for-profit companies operating schools than any other state. The findings, based on tens of thousands of records spanning two decades as well as hundreds of interviews, paint a dismal picture of a charter sector that spends $1 billion annually with little accountability and lax oversight. Ultimately, the paper found, Michigan’s charter schools do no better in terms of student achievement than traditional public schools.

The paper is publishing pieces of its major investigation every day this week. (You can see the outline of the investigation here.) Here are some of the basic findings of the newspaper’s probe into the more than 230 charter schools in Michigan:

Charter schools spend $1billion per year in state taxpayer money, often with little transparency.
Some charter schools are innovative and have excellent academic outcomes — but those that don’t are allowed to stay open year after year.
A majority of the worst-ranked charter schools in Michigan have been open 10 years or more.
Charter schools as a whole fare no better than traditional schools in educating students in poverty.
State law does not prevent insider dealing and self-enrichment by those who operate schools.

This Saturday, the paper will publish the last major piece of its investigation, with this damning conclusion:

While charters have given Detroit parents many options, they haven’t provided what the city needs: high-quality schools that can succeed with disadvantaged children.

The results of this probe are important in the debate about school reform in this country. School reformers have for years advocated for the spread of charter schools, which are often hailed as having found some “secret sauce” to helping high-needs students when, in fact, most charters aren’t any better in terms of student achievement than traditional public schools and some are far worse. Yes, there are some excellent charter schools, but no, with problems like those uncovered by the Free Press, charter schools overall are not the “solution” to troubled school districts that their supporters have long portrayed them to be.

These findings are not exclusive to Michigan; wasteful spending, lax accountability and self-enrichment by operators has been found in the charter sectors of other states as well. Charter schools have become just one more troubled sector in the education world.

The newspaper cast an extremely wide net in its reporting of this story. Here is the newspaper’s description of how it conducted its investigation:

The Detroit Free Press did hundreds of interviews and examined tens of thousands of documents in a yearlong investigation of Michigan’s charter schools and how the state oversees them.
Among the records: More than 400 three-ring binders the Michigan Department of Education keeps on every charter, including those that closed, with contracts between schools and authorizers, management agreements, leases, building inspections, correspondence, internal MDE e-mails, court filings and parent complaints. Also examined were school audits, lawsuits, deeds, assessor records and school Web postings.
The Free Press also surveyed all 296 charters in the state — under which about 370 schools operate — plus numerous authorizers and management companies, both full-service and those that provide limited services such as human resources. The information was used in part to build a comprehensive searchable database listing every charter school, its test results and rankings, its management company, whether the company is for-profit or not, and what services it provides. That database will be posted Thursday on
The news organization used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain records from schools and authorizers, including payments to vendors and lease amendments.