Thursday, July 24, 2014

I started to go with "arsonists decry fires, call for more kerosene" but that didn't capture the full disconnect

Perhaps I just haven't spent enough time in the trenches, but I don't think I've ever seen a response to a corruption scandal quite this. As the Detroit Free Press lays out in painful detail, over the past few years, the cash-strapped state of Michigan appears to have lost hundreds of millions to overcharging, mismanagement and plain old graft in the charter school sector.

This is largely the result of initiatives pushed through by Gov. Rick Snyder and former Gov. John Engler, two Republicans with a bent toward privatization. A Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, served between Snyder and Engler and took a sharply different approach.

The following quotes are from Detroit Free Press Education Writer David Jesse:
Engler signed the law creating charter schools in 1994.In 2002, in Engler’s last year and just before Granholm took office, Michigan’s auditor general found repeated conflicts of interest among those running charter schools. A legislative committee recommended tightening laws and oversight, but no action was taken.

Granholm was the governor when 2009 legislation laying out transparency requirements for all schools — including charters — was passed. She signed the act into law. However, many companies and organizations running charter schools say many of those requirements don’t apply to them.

She also signed a law allowing limited expansion of charter schools in Michigan.

In 2011, Snyder signed a law abolishing the limit on charters.
2011 was, by the way, Snyder's first year in office.

The result (as shown in this Free Press graphic) has been striking:

 Combine this with lax oversight and it's not surprising that companies are cashing in on a massive scale. For example, one company, National Heritage Academies, appears to have overcharged the state tens (possibly even hundreds) of millions of dollars on rent alone.

How do Gov. Rick Snyder and former Gov. John Engler respond to the apparent problems with their initiatives?
Both Republican governors told the Free Press that other questions are secondary, including how transparent charter schools are with taxpayer dollars, how much money management companies make, whether the state’s oversight of charter schools is sufficient. What matters, they said, is academic growth.

“The real issue is not for-profit companies — it’s (are) there good outcomes?” Snyder said. “Are the students college ready? That’s the long-term goal and how we should judge not only charter schools, but also traditional schools.”

“The focus should be on what happens in the classroom,” Engler said. “Who provides it matters less than the education they are providing. ... The bottom line is, how are children doing? Are they learning?”
There are at least two layers of weird here. The first is the assertion that taxpayers in the middle of a fiscal crisis shouldn't care about being robbed blind as long as they were happy with the service provided. The second is the implication that the taxpayers should be happy with this service.
Of the charter schools ranked by the state during the 2012-13 school year, 38% fell below the 25th percentile, meaning at least 75% of all state public schools performed better, according to a Free Press review of data published by the state. This includes charters operated by for-profit and nonprofit companies, as well as self-managed schools. That compares with 23% of traditional schools below the 25th percentile.
This indicates an extraordinary level of denial. To understand where that comes from it helps to dig deeper into the interview:
Engler and Snyder both said charter schools need improvement but are educating students well.

Engler: “I talk to Doug Ross (founder of University Preparatory system of charter schools) and I know they are. ... As a result of the competition, more kids are learning. Are they improving enough? There’s still work to be done. There’s no question you could answer the question the same with traditional public schools.”

Snyder: “They are educating students. That’s one area we could use more work on, not just the charter schools, but also the (traditional) schools. That led to the creation of EAA” — the Education Achievement Authority that has assumed responsibility for many poor-performing traditional Detroit schools.
“The oversight is ultimately the parent, just like it has always been,” Engler said. “The parent moved if (the traditional school) wasn’t working, but that was limited economically. It’s a question that misses the broader point: What goes on in schools should be the focus. The whole focus should be on education. ... The structural questions, frankly, are missing the point.”
Gov. Engler sees choice and markets as the solution to all of education's problems, while Snyder, when confronted with corruption and scandals in the charter school sector, calls for greater scrutiny of traditional schools. You have here the two primary articles of faith that made this crisis possible – – market magic and the evils of the public sector. These are deeply held and like all true articles of faith, they do not yield to experience and reason.

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