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Michigan charter schools got millions in taxpayer money for schools that never opened

Aaron Burden

A federal program awarded $7.7 million to charter schools in Michigan that never opened. That's according to a report from the Network for Public Education.

A total of 257 charter schools in Michigan received money from the federal program. 72 of them never opened. No other state had that many unopened charter schools that received money from the Charter Schools Program.

Another 40 charter schools in Michigan that received money have since closed. In total, 44% of the schools that won grants are no longer open.

Despite that, Michigan is moving ahead with the latest round of the federal program, which could send an additional $47 million to the state’s charter schools.

“I continue to have major concerns about this entire program,” said State Board of Education President Cassandra Ulbrich, “not just here in Michigan, but on the federal level as well.”

In May, Ulbrich and others on the board voted to reject the criteria for the new round of grants through the Charter Schools Program. The money has already been appropriated, and charter schools can still get funds.

But Ulbrich told fellow Board of Education members on Tuesday she still has questions.

“The most disturbing thing that I found from reviewing the documentation from these grants was that there really appeared to be no prohibition on conflicts of interest,” Ulbrich says.

The report from the Network for Public Education lists several examples from Michigan in which charter school operators paid themselves, or their family members, tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees for schools that never opened.

State Superintendent Michael Rice told members of the State Board of Education at a meeting Tuesday that he’s asking the Michigan Department of Education to keep a closer eye on funding for the next round of grants.

“I have asked the office of the internal audit services to begin an audit in this area,” he said. “I do think that it is appropriate.”

Ulbrich says she will continue to monitor the program as well.

“We just need to remember that this is taxpayer money,” she said. “And we on the board are the representatives of the taxpayers. And so we need to do a better job, and I need to do a better job and I will be doing a better job moving forward.”

Nationwide, the Network for Public Education says more than $500 million in federal money has been spent in the Charter Schools Program on schools that are no longer open.

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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