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Shame on the charter schools

Well, the weekend is almost here, and here’s a radical idea to consider between football games. I think the time has come to get rid of charter schools.

That’s right – get rid of them, all of them. Many or most of them don’t work, and all of them are draining resources from our conventional public schools and helping further destabilize education.

One thing is beyond doubt: Michigan has proven vastly incompetent at chartering, administering and overseeing these schools.

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education turned down this state’s request for a $45 million dollar grant to expand charter schools. This was mostly because Michigan doesn’t provide sufficient oversight of those who authorize and supposedly oversee them.

The Department of Education did the right thing. Nobody should give charter schools in this state another dime. Sixteen months ago, theDetroit Free Press did a masterful, comprehensive and eye-opening series on the state of charters here that uncovered horror story after horror story of waste, fraud and abuse.

Most importantly, the series revealed that state oversight is incredibly weak; the worst-performing charters are allowed to stay open year after year, and that overall, charter schools have been no better than traditional schools in educating our poorest students.

We spend a billion tax dollars a year on charter schools. More of this money goes to for-profit private companies than in any other state.

After the newspaper’s stories appeared, the charter school industry issued a series of unconvincing denials. Their fans pointed to a few high-performing successful charters. But sadly, nothing has changed.

Coincidentally, this week, the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy came out with a new report  showing that Washington has paid at least $1.7 million to proposed Michigan charter schools … that never opened.

Lisa Graves, the center’s executive director, said:

"The money hasn’t been paid back, there’s no real accounting for how it was spent… I think that’s a problem.”

No kidding. Stephen Henderson, editor of the Detroit Free Press editorial page, says he has enrolled his children “in one of the few high-performing charters in [Detroit.]”

Well, of course.

He was able to do that, since he is both highly educated and well-connected. However, most people are neither. Henderson also tells the story of the pompously named Aisha Shule/W.E.B. Dubois preparatory academy which opened two years ago and shut down after six weeks. [In 2013,  Aisha Shule/W.E.B Dubois shut down six weeks after opening for the school year. It was not when it opened as a school. Please see statement posted below last Friday from Michelle Zdrodowski, Executive Director of Communications for Detroit Public Schools regarding the history and closure of Aisha Shule/W.E.B Dubois for further clarification. - editor]

The irony is that this particular charter was authorized by the Detroit Public Schools, themselves a poster child for fiscal and academic failure.

So if we did get rid of the charters, what should we do instead? The answer is simple -- and incredibly complex: Commit ourselves as a state and a people to fixing public education. This won’t be easy.

It will cost money, and require something more than money – really doing what it takes to educate as many kids as possible to as full an extent as possible. It will require flexibility; what works in Ann Arbor may not in Detroit. Schools in some places will have to become community centers; parents and guardians will need educating too.

Doing this will be hard, and may not always succeed. Not doing it means condemning our state and our kids to a future of failure.

Which means we really don’t have any choice.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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