Charter School Oversight Remains Weak

In 2016, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for a moratorium on new charter schools, citing many problems with these privatized schools, including poor performance, extensive waste, widespread segregation, and inadequate accountability.

Oversight, transparency, accountability, and good governance have never been the strong suits of charter schools or charter school authorizers. Both have been poor stewards of the public interest for more than a generation.

A new report confirms what many already know about chronically poor oversight in the segregated charter school sector.

The report, titled “Improving Oversight of Michigan Charter Schools and Their Authorizers,” was released February 2020 by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (founded in 1961).  It reminds the public that charter school authorizers in Michigan are essentially useless, despite years of scandalous news about charter schools coming out of Michigan.

Quality charter schools are elusive in Michigan. Poor performance is widespread. And parents and government officials are constantly overwhelmed by the chaos and anarchy unleashed by the presence of hundreds of charter schools competing with each other and with public schools. Competition has brought out the worse in everyone and everything. It has lowered the level for everyone and left communities worse off.

Michigan, however, is not unique with its endless charter school problems: “market accountability” has undermined democratic accountability and quality education across the entire charter school sector. Thus, for example, waste, fraud, and corruption plague not only Michigan but the entire charter school sector.1 Every day, news reports expose racketeering, insider deals, scams, and shady activities in non-profit and for-profit charter schools across the country.

Currently, nearly 90% of charter schools in Michigan are authorized by universities and community colleges, but hardly anyone holds any oversight powers over these authorizers that operate arbitrarily. The accountability gap for charter school authorizers remains wide. It is not clear how these publicly-funded authorizers are actually operating. Relevant administrative rules, standards, and statutes governing performance, reporting, reliability, quality, and accountability are largely absent for these well-funded charter school authorizers, which is why a “Wild West” atmosphere prevails in that state.

Michigan passed its charter school law in 1993. Today, more than 140,000 students attend more than 300 charter schools in the Wolverine State. Most charter schools in Michigan openly operate as for-profit charter schools. Owners-operators of these for-profit schools believe profiting off kids is natural, normal, and healthy. They see education as a business.

Charter school promoters have never viewed education as a basic human right that must be provided with a guarantee in practice. They reject the modern consciousness that recognizes education is a social responsibility that cannot be reduced to individual choice, consumerism, and the law of the jungle. From the capital-centered perspective of charter school owners-operators, education in a 21st century society based on advanced technical expertise and mass industrial production is nothing more than parents fending for themselves like animals, shopping for schools that hopefully choose them and don’t fail or close due to financial malfeasance a few years later. Every year, however, hundreds of charter schools close, often abruptly, leaving thousands of families out in the cold, feeling abandoned and violated. So much for “choice,” “parent power,” “innovation,” and neoliberal schooling. Who is accountable to these families, in Michigan and elsewhere?

  1. See, for example, Bryant, J. Why the federal government’s billion-dollar charter school program is a complete disaster, Salon, December 12, 2019.  See also Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, and Abuse. []
Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.