Citing a history of failed schools, Michigan board questions federal charter school grants

Democrats on the Michigan school board lashed out at the state’s charter sector on Tuesday, using a symbolic vote to raise concerns about the mishandling of federal charter school grants.

Three of the five Democrats present at Tuesday’s board meeting voted against $47 million in federal grants knowing that their opposition won’t stop the money from flowing to Michigan charter schools. The state won the five-year grant before the newest board members took office this year, ushering in a Democratic majority after two years of divided governance.

Still, they said they wouldn’t formally sign off on the grants because of the program’s history of wasting money on schools that never served students.

“I don’t want to feed the beast,” said Michelle Fecteau, a Democrat on the board. “Not until we can provide true choices without these negative consequences.”

Of the 176 Michigan schools that received federal grants in the past, 75 never opened their doors, according to the state education department. Another 12 enrolled students and held classes, but eventually closed.

Michigan wasn’t unique. Across the country, up to $1 billion in federal funds went  to charter schools that never opened or are now closed, according to a March report.

Several board members used the report to argue that Michigan should stop backing new charter schools.

“Why do we keep building new schools when we have fewer kids?” Ulbrich asked Casandra Ulbrich, the board president, pointing out that Michigan’s student population has shrunk by 12 percent in the last 15 years.

Officials with Michigan’s education department, which the board oversees, emphasized that the latest federal grants would be used mostly to improve existing schools, not open new ones.

The previous program “had a substantial planning component that is not a large part of the grant now,” said Paula Daniels, director of the state’s Office of Educational Supports.

In fact, Daniels said, the grants will let the state exercise more oversight over charter schools. Many Michigan charter schools contract out most of their operations to private managers that are not subject to the same transparency laws as traditional public schools. But in order to receive the grant money, schools must share some information about their spending publicly.

“We saw this as an opportunity to invest in oversight and quality,” Daniels said of the grant.

The national charter school sector has grown steadily over most of two decades, fueled in part by the federal grant program, which has routed more than $3 billion to startup charter schools since it began under President Bill Clinton.

Today, 10 percent of Michigan students are enrolled in charters. But the sector’s growth is slowing, and charters face growing political headwinds in some places, especially as they fall out of favor among white Democrats.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny, the lone Democrat who supported the program (Fecteau abstained), said she hoped the money would improve the state’s oversight of charter schools. Roughly 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are run by for-profit companies, and previous investigations have found widespread conflicts of interest and self-dealing.

“At the end of the day a lot of our children are in those schools,” she said. “We have an opportunity in the department for accountability which wasn’t in the picture before.”