Michigan Charter Schools Attempt Millage-Pillage & 20 Years of Arizona School Carpetbagging

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And from the “Ain’t It Ironic” department…

Charter schools in Michigan decided they want a level playing field.

“We have ten percent of our students who attend charter schools in my county,” said bill sponsor Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell. “And I feel like it’s an equity issue.” (link)

October 10, 2017 –
Virginia Gordon article for MichiganRadio.org

The GOP leaders aren’t satisfied with just dipping their corporate bills into state per-pupil funding (with far less oversight needed than traditional schools), they now want a piece of local districts’ property tax millage.

Michigan Senate Bill 574 proposes a handy crossed-out edit of the 1976 law…

It’s just one little edit–few would notice or even really grasp the big deal.  And it’s one way to fix a “broken system,” much like repairing your car by removing a tire.  But Randy Liepa of Wayne RESA responds…

“Charter schools by and large don’t have to pay into the retirement system for their teachers. Typically they don’t have the same kind of transportation costs. Many charter schools are elementary schools, which are cheaper to run than high schools.”

Non-Swamp Dweller “Joe the Plumber” with Candidate McCain

The notion of fairness drove the last election, after all.  The draining of Washington’s “swamp” was meant to get the lobbyists, insiders and general elite out of the way and make room for more Joe the Plumbers, the ones who don’t run up $1 million in charter plane tickets.

At an interview, I was once asked what I thought was the most important thing for teachers to remember about their students.  That was easy; I just needed to remember what drove me crazy as a student in many classrooms.

  • Don’t embarrass kids
  • Don’t treat them unfairly

Follow those two steps and you’ll find life a lot easier in a room where you’re outnumbered 30:1.

Seventeen years later, 31 years into my ongoing tutorial as a teacher, I haven’t really changed my answer; in fact it’s true of teachers, too.  After serving as union crisis-chair in my former district’s difficult contract situation I was asked to speak to the school board just moments before they voted on a 10% six-month retroactive pay cut, which also increased the steps to get to the top of the pay scale leaving over a dozen teachers actually owing money to the district for their final six pay dates.  We had gone through the state-required 20 pointless “negotiation” meetings before the district was “legally” allowed to impose a terrible contract upon us.  We’d tried informational handouts, peaceful picketing and coffees in parent homes.  Sadly, a strong contingent of parents treated us as ungrateful and even yelled at a board meeting, “Impose!”  I walked to the microphone and said, “If we behaved with your kids as you’ve behaved with us, we should be fired.”

May 2010 my colleagues picketing before school against the upcoming 10% retroactive pay cut.  (Michigan law prohibits teacher strikes.)

Most teachers are pretty non-confrontational, none went into the profession for the money and nearly every one I’ve ever known works long hours before and after the bell.  So to be called greedy, manipulative and somehow “getting what’s coming to us after jobbing the system for so long” was indeed humiliating.  Seven years later, many of those teachers have left the district or left the profession altogether.  Seven years later there is a significant teacher-shortage in the state’s key areas and both education programs at the University of Michigan and Michigan State are reporting significant drops in their educational schools.  Who, after all, would choose to put themselves into a situation with such risks beyond financial–risks of job security, physical harm and self-esteem?

My colleague and mentor Ken Noble wrote in this blog “You’re Pregnant?  You’re Fired,” that the days before teachers unions have returned with extremely unlevel playing fields of pay, tenure and respect.  Michigan has passed over thirty laws against teachers and collective bargaining when it cannot effectively pass one road bill or figure out how to get safe water to Flint residents.

But the issue of a truly equal chance for learning and success for all kids, I suspect, lies at the root of teaching as a career choice for most of us.  And over the past two decades public school classrooms have seen true equality removed.

After Twenty Years of Charter Schools in Arizona…

September 17, 2017 release of 20 years of charter school financing and lack of oversight in Arizona.

Arizona now hands over $1 billion annually to charter schools, with far less oversight than standard public schools must provide.  In our recent podcast we discussed the remarkable findings of the non-partisan Grand Canyon Institute’s mid-September 90-page first report of a three year study, Curtis Cardine’s Following the Money:  Twenty Years of Charter School Finances in Arizona.  I was joined by co-author and institute founding member, Dr. David Wells, as we discussed the startling results of the study and its subsequent feedback.

Listen to our podcast with co-author David Wells, Ph.D. (also on iTunes)

The full report (link), like any good lesson, begins with two essential questions that boil down to, “What have you done with your gifts?” reminding me of one of my favorite parables with the three men given various bags of gold–two wisely invest them and the third buries his in the ground, making the excuse that he was protecting his master’s investment.

  1. “What have the promoters of charter schools done with the freedom over their budgets, staffing, curricula and other operations?”
  2. “What is the result of eliminating the substantial conformity of governance and finance rules for operating schools (financed from taxpayers’ dollars) on the governance and finances of these entities?”

Unfortunately, Arizona’s bags of gold were neither invested nor buried in the desert–but instead were used to pay exorbitant salaries, fund shadow-companies often run by family members and pay overpriced rent to buildings coincidentally owned by the charter school executives at levels of incestuous financial behavior that would make Tony Soprano blush.

Questions, Anyone?

The report and its executive summary echo my students questions over the decades in just a few of the remarkable findings below…

Student:  “Why are you giving them more time on the test than me?”

While school choice and free market economic theory have driven the Arizona charter school movement, many in the drivers’ seat have found opportunities to benefit themselves through financial transactions that are specifically forbidden in public district schools.

The full report uses examples in Chicago and Detroit where “rigging bids” actually resulted in jail time for district executives.  But in the shadowy world of charter and cyber school oversight, there is no punishment:

In 2014, Primavera Technical Learning Center paid a flat fee of $12.2 million for software and curriculum services to The American Virtual Academy, a company owned  by the charter holder.

Mesa Unified school district, which is actually one of the largest in the state, pays less than 10 percent for its learning management software.

Student:  “Why does he get extra credit for doing the same thing I did?”

One particularly high compensation example is at Crown Charter School, Inc., where the top two executives paid themselves a total of half a million dollars in FY 2014. This compensation occurred even though the school had just over 250 students. Nearly $2,000 from taxpayers’ per student from the Arizona State General Fund went to these two individuals. By contrast, the superintendent of Scottsdale Unified made $203,000 in 2014-2015.

But isn’t your son in your class and helped you staple the tests together?

Three-fourths of Arizona’s charter school holders engage in related-party transactions that did not fit the definition of “saving money” or “efficiency,” an oft-cited reason given for allowing charters to engage in this practice. Gaming the system is often done through contractual transactions with subsidiary for profit companies owned by the charter school holder and overseen by the same corporate board as the nonprofit charter school.

Nepotism laws prohibit the hiring of relatives, but in Arizona’s charter world, the study found such practices “allowed (and prevalent) especially at Management Level. Majority of the charters have related parties working for, managing and/or on the board of their charter.

Student:  “How, exactly, am I being graded?”

The data on distributions from subsidiary for profits, operated by the same owners and board as many nonprofit charters, is unavailable to the public as the firms are considered separate businesses from the charter.

Student:  “Why don’t you want to stay after school and help me?”

Charter school teachers on average earn 20% less than their public district school colleagues while 43% of charters do not offer a retirement or savings plan to their employees. This issue is explored in depth in the third policy report of the series.

2001 Detroit Federation of Teacher protest charter expansion

Rubrics

A clear rubric is a wonderful tool–if you truly believe in a level playing field.  And like any student receiving feedback on a one-paragraph essay or any teacher who lets his class leave for lunch 20 minutes early, the Institute offers some pretty clear recommendations for improvement (beginning on page 20 of full report), including:

  • Charters need to be held to the same public bidding procurement process as public district schools.
  • Related-party employment compensation needs to be disclosed in audits and the charter must provide a market-based analysis to the district that demonstrates no more than fair-market value is paid for any compensation to related-parties.
  • Audits of charter schools need to include review of compensation to non-instructional personnel in an administrative, governance or ownership capacity.
  • The ASBCS should be monitoring and approving any distributions in excess of the charter’s net for the year.
  • Charter school financial data needs to be shared with and monitored by the Auditor General’s Office just as it is for public district schools.
  • All online charters should be reviewed immediately to evaluate the quality of their academic offerings and student achievement to determine whether their charter should continue.

As Betsy Devos and friends smash in new doors to Michigan’s school funding henhouse the foxes are happy to bypass long-standing corruption rules and public schools lose more and more funding leaving its students and teachers unfairly behind.  They are counting on your short attention span–so short it can’t make it to the bottom of this 1,700 word post.  It’s much easier to read a tweet about a broken school bus–“See, it just won’t run!  Let’s try something new.”

…as the swamp that was supposed to be drained ends up absorbing the school bus entirely.

About Kevin Walsh

Before creating MyMediaDiary.com, Kevin taught high school video productions and language arts for 25 years. He is the producer of the web-series and blog, www.DiggingDetroit, founder and producer for MMD Productions at www.mmdphotovideo.com which offers quick, professional photography, video and multimedia solutions for individuals, organizations and businesses. His text, "Video Direct," is used in 40 states. He is the current president of the non-profit DAFT (Digital Arts Film and Television) which sponsors the Michigan Student Film Festival. He lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, is married to Patrice and is tolerated by his two teenagers. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kwteacher
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