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State Board of Education: Charter schools must be more transparent about finances

Steve Carmody
Michigan Public

The Michigan state Board of Education this week passed a resolution that seeks more financial transparency from the state’s charter schools.

The resolution states that the financial data most charter schools make public isn’t as comprehensive as that offered by traditional public school districts. It also raises concerns about charters’ leadership and oversight, saying board members are usually appointed by charter authorizers, leading to less accountability than elected school boards.

Board of Education member Mitchell Robinson, who sponsored the resolution, said there’s an “unequal playing field” between charter and traditional public schools. “There are all kinds of financial reporting requirements that are not observed equally, or even required equally, between the charter school sector and traditional public schools,” he said.

Robinson said the resolution, which passed by a 6-1 vote, is “calling on the state Legislature to recognize the fact that we are currently funding two parallel, public school systems,” and that in the case of charter schools, “often the only real public part of that label is the funding.”

Charter schools, also known as public school academies, are taxpayer-funded schools that aren’t part of a traditional public school district. They’re chartered by an “authorizer,” frequently a university, which then typically appoints board members. Many Michigan charters are also run by private management companies—and, according to former state Board of Education President Cassandra Ulbrich, 81% of those are for-profit companies. As of 2023, about 150,000 Michigan students attended charter schools, around half of those just in Detroit.

The Board’s statement also points to researchthe Michigan Department of Education performed recently at its behest, that compared financial transparency expectations and requirements for traditional school districts and charters. MDE found that “financial data for most charter schools consisted primarily of purchased services and did not permit the same level of analysis and understanding as the financial data for traditional public school districts,” according to the Board.

In a statement that accompanied the resolution’s passage, Board members said they’ve also “become increasingly concerned with efforts nationally to privatize public education and shift governance of schools from local communities to private and appointed boards, religious organizations, and for-profit corporations and nonprofits.”

The resolution and its claims were met with anger and derision by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA), the foremost charter advocacy group in the state.

“As the board members well know, charter schools are fully public schools with public school boards,” MAPSA President Dan Quisenberry said in a statement. “They’re open to any student in the state without qualification and they serve a far higher population of minority students and students living in poverty.

“Charter schools are among the highest-performing schools in the state, particularly in Detroit. Charter schools serve the most high-need and vulnerable students in the state, and yet these are the students the state board has decided to target?”

The group pointed to research they say shows charters, on average, outperform comparable traditional public schools with similar student demographics. That larger area of research has been controversial and highly-contested—studies show mixed results, and pro- and anti-charter forces each claim the research backs up their side when it comes to school performance.

When it comes to the Board’s resolution, that body can only make recommendations to the state Legislature and urge them to act. Robinson acknowledged that prior boards had passed similar resolutions that went nowhere, but for now he’s cautiously optimistic.

“I think that the Legislature is much closer to being supportive of this resolution than they were of the previous ones because of the changes in the state Legislature [to its current slight Democratic majority],” Robinson said. “But I wouldn't say it would be a slam dunk.”


Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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