Education — June 23, 2014 at 12:15 pm

For-profit charter corporations now in full-blown panic mode over Detroit Free Press investigative reporting


As I wrote about this morning, Michigan’s largest for-profit charter school company, National Heritage Academies (NHA) responded to a blockbuster new investigative report being published at the Detroit Free Press this week by buying up all of the ad space on the front page of their website as well as the website of the Detroit News. It turns out that isn’t the only over-the-top response the charters have had. The Detroit Free Press clearly has them in full-out panic mode.

I have had reports of several candidates for the state legislature receiving the following email from the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA), that attempts to refute the outstanding journalism by the Free Press. MAPSA is essentially the trade group for the for-profit education corporation industry.

The rebuttal is pretty comical since it doesn’t address many of the things reported in the multi-article series. One thing that really stuck out for me in the reporting is a quote from MAPSA president Dan Quisenberry regarding transparency. According to Quisenberry and other for-profit charter adminstrators, once our tax dollars are diverted to for-profit charters, it becomes private money for which there is no reporting requirement:

Management companies insist — without much challenge from the state — that taxpayer money they receive to run a school, hire staff and pay suppliers is private, not subject to public disclosure.

[Dan] Quisenberry, the president of the Michigan charter schools association, said school expenditures are “appropriately public” while “things that would be related to the company itself and its internal operations are appropriately private.”

Greg Lambert, an NHA representative, spelled out the company’s position to the board of the Detroit Enterprise Academy in 2010 when several members were demanding more transparency.

“Mr. Lambert stated that the public dollars became private when they were received by NHA. He further indicated that because NHA is a private company, the information need not be disclosed,” according to minutes of the meeting. Lambert has since retired.

Given that philosophy, the outrage being generated by the Detroit Free Press investigation is pretty easy to understand.

NHA is in freak-out mode, as well. They sent out this email to their internal employees, responding to the Free Press reporting:

Dear Colleagues:

As some of you might have seen, the Detroit Free Press began a series about charter schools yesterday. In it, NHA and our founder J.C. Huizenga, were a main focus of the story.

While the Free Press talked with a number of people involved in the movement of charter schools in Michigan, its reporting thus far has been decidedly one-sided.

Instead of making this story about student achievement, the Free Press focused on items of continued political debate. We know what really matters are academic results. As employees of NHA, you can be proud that NHA schools consistently provide a quality education for students at less cost for taxpayers and with less funding from the state.

I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight on a few issues in which the Free Press chose to focus:

  • NHA abides by all transparency laws required of us in each state where we operate.
  • When a local school board partners with NHA to provide educational services, NHA takes on all of the costs to operate a strong and effective school. In return, and based upon the services agreement signed by both NHA and the partner school board, all funding the school receives is transferred to NHA. The partner school board and local taxpayers are not responsible for any of the start-up costs for the school—which in Michigan is, on average, between $7-10 million.
  • Many critics like to make a big deal about “rent” or “lease rates” for NHA schools. What they overlook is the fact that the lease rate or rent reflects the short-term nature of these leases and value of these single-purpose school buildings when the unique risks of a public charter school investment are considered.

What articles like these overlook are the lives of students that are positively changed from the education they receive in one of our schools. NHA is having a profound impact in the lives of students across the state.

Sadly, there are still some who refuse to see that educational choice makes schools better across the spectrum. There are some who refuse to see that our education model is making a positive impact on the lives of students. The bottom line is this: NHA schools provide students with a quality education and we do so with reduced funding.

For the 2012-13 school year:

  • NHA schools in Michigan served 32,239 students.
  • Nearly 62 percent of those students qualify for free or reduced price lunch (FRL).
  • For the 2013 MEAP, 91 percent (or 43 out of 47) NHA schools had an overall proficiency higher than their local district.

During the 2012-13 school year, NHA partner schools in Michigan ranked in the top 15 percent of U.S. schools for academic growth. The rate of growth for Michigan students, meaning how much they grew during one academic year, was 138 percent, or the equivalent of a year and a third of growth in one school year. I encourage you to review the CREDO study conducted by Stanford University. This study is an objective academic analysis of charter school performance in Michigan.

You are making a profound difference in the lives of students and their families. Your leadership, your dedication, your commitment to “challenging each child to achieve” is changing lives. A news article cannot take that away from you, or the students’ lives for which you’ve had an impact. Please don’t forget that. Please watch this attached video highlighting the academic improvement of James, just one of the more than 50,000 students in our schools. I know each of you has a James in your school—and you are making a difference in his life.

With gratitude for the work you do,

This email is well-crafted but highly deceptive spin that uses straw man arguments and then shoots them down. In other words, like the MAPSA spin, it doesn’t address some of the most egregious findings in the Detroit Free Press reporting.

It’s unsurprising to see the for-profit charter school industry this panicked. They have been milking the charter school cash cow and enriching themselves on tax dollars intended to educate our kids for a long time. They come to Michigan specifically because our rules are lax and because they are aided and abetted by funding from corporate groups and wealthy supporters like the DeVos family. They also have corporatist front groups like Mackinac Center who have helped reshape public policy to make it easier than ever to siphon education tax dollars into their bank accounts.

The losers are, of course, the kids — mostly poor kids — who are being educated on the cheap to maximize corporate profit statements. It’s sick and disgusting and it’s a way of life in Michigan. We are, in fact, the nation’s leader in for-profit charter schools and nearly two-thirds of our charters are run for-profit corporations.

One more thing: I have been critical of the main media outlets in Michigan for giving for-profit charters and the EAA a pass in the past. However, reporting like this and the reporting done by the Detroit News on the spending scandals within the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) give me hope that investigative journalism may be enjoying a resurgence in Michigan. We should all pray for this because the integrity of our democracy depends on it.

  • Pingback: UPDATED: As Detroit Free Press does week-long exposé of charter schools, National Heritage Academies buys up all its ad space | Eclectablog()

  • Let me translate NHA and MAPSA:

    We’re caught in a trap
    We can’t walk out
    Because we love money too much baby

    Why can’t you see
    What the Free Press doing to me
    When I don’t believe a word they say?

    We can’t go on together
    With suspicious minds
    And we can’t build our dreams
    On suspicious minds

    And public money

    (Sung loudly and accompanied by Rick Snyder)

    • Jack Wilson

      Right on!

  • Holly Muenchow

    The unfortunate thing is that Snyder and his rep a*# kissing legislators will continue to work toward that cash cow being fed regardless of the expose. Truth doesn’t matter, their ultimate goal does not involve either ethical or effective education for children (although that is the obvious spin that must be used) – they want maximum profit opportunity for minimal capital outlay (I.e. Public taxes) for their business cronies.

  • sagittarius

    How interesting that in the fourth bullet point, ‘… People with no background in education should have not have a role in founding or managing schools’, the response is: “A background in education isn’t necessary to be involved a high-preforming, efficient school”.

    So, who wrote this, Sarah Palin? Nom, nom, word salad with typos.

    Is our children learning?

  • Chuck Fellows

    The Free Press Charter
    School study presents a one sided view of the educational universe. Not
    addressed are the very real difficulties that teachers and students encounter
    while attempting to learn, difficulties that parents resolve on their own by
    selecting a Charter instead of a traditional school environment.

    A broad brush approach presents all Charter Schools as bad, service providers
    as evil profiteers and Charter School Boards as easily fooled dupes. Adding
    insult to injury, the study uses ineffective measurement systems (i.e. MEAP
    results) as measures of school quality and learning growth.

    I have had the opportunity to experience teaching in a traditional system, have attended endless hours of traditional school board meetings, dug into the hundreds of policies school boards and their administrations generate and reviewed PA 451
    of 1976 in detail, including its’ 1,782 “shall” statements.

    We do have systemic problems but the roots are not within Charter Schools. The almost total lack of progressive cognitive activity and unwillingness to accept change present within the traditional “system” of education is the primary
    source of the learning difficulties our children endure daily, attitudes this
    series of articles reinforce.

    Here’s my personal view of “ills” afflicting schools. I’ll try my best to use the same lens that shaped this series of articles.

    Spends $11.0 Billion annually and has a 30% dropout rate. Does that mean that
    over $3.0 Billion is wasted each year? (Gates Foundation Study 2006 based on graduation rates – not so called “drop out” rate)

    Collects and spends millions each year ($14 billion in current debt
    outstanding/$8,200 per student) on infrastructure and capital projects with
    revenues extracted locally. (Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency)

    Does not mention the “supports”, to traditional public schools, or the cost, related to Intermediate School Districts.

    Doesn’t mention that the bureaucracy’s data collection and reporting infrastructure, CEPI which is part of the MDE, has had their dropout rate calculations shown to be defective and were directed to do it over. (2004 and 2007 adjustments to comply with NCLB 4 year cohort graduation measurement)

    That the architects of traditional schooling have had over 100 years and many,
    many examples of how to focus on learning instead of “bureaucratic drag” but
    remain unwilling to let go of the way they have always done it. (Taylor’s scientific
    management, Prussian discipline and the factory model)

    That the public education system “not for profit” entities providing
    learning services (AKA traditional public schools) are falling into severe
    financial distress. Worse yet, those in power blame this on the teachers or any
    other entity they can find, such as those terrible Charter Schools that are
    stealing “their” students and “their” money.

    The absence of transparency and full financial disclosure from those large for
    profit entities traditional schools use daily, such as Houghton Mifflin,
    Harcourt Brace, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and all the other service providers used
    to support their non-profit efforts.

    What is really sad is the failure to identify what gave rise to the Charter
    School movement, professional arrogance, unresponsiveness to diversity, arcane
    policy and procedure, failed measurement systems, failure to support and
    develop teachers and the absolute worst and probably root cause of traditional
    school difficulties, a willful silencing of the voices that count the most, the
    teachers and students who are never meaningfully asked to provide their

    I believe we all have a common interest, children learning. If that is true this series of articles has earned a grade of “F”. But, life is about learning, and part of that process is using that “F” to create improvement. I hope that happens!

    Note: The above comments are based upon over twenty years of serious research into educational practice and policy; testimony before sate and federal education committees; research into the sources of autism, dyslexia and ADHD; six years spent in a teachers shoes post retirement from manufacturing management and seven years association with Charter schools, the last three as a Board of Directors president.

  • Chuck Fellows

    Dear Electablog:

    I’m not in panic mode. I’m thoroughly enraged about this series of articles. Regarding the efforts Charter organizations expend to influence legislation . . .

    Why are Charter School supporters being singled out for scrutiny for a process used by anybody with money that wants to “influence” policy?

    Instead of beating up on choices that parents and children are making to seek out alternatives to traditional public schools (which do seem to work for a majority of students, about 70%, although we really don’t know how well they are working) why can’t we focus on the real problem – private money in political campaigns?

    There is a very real fear that the motivation behind all the money funneled to support Charter Schools in the legislature is really an effort to privatize public education. The current shouting match adults are engaged in between traditional and charter supporters appears to be all about the fear of privatization.

    Totally set aside are the very real concerns that teachers in every type of organization, public, private, charter or parochial share – children learning.

    Personally I believe that privatization of a common good, the equal opportunity to learn, is a bad idea since a learning opportunity will become a secondary consideration to the survival of the private entity. That’s just the way free enterprise works.

    Public versus private is a separate question and must not be allowed to hijack teachers and parents real concern – children learning. The legislature can maintain a distance between “private’ and “learning” by remaining aware that they are two separate and distinct arguments, and acting according.

    By doing that the track record of the free enterprise theory that privatization is better than public can be vetted thoroughly. Once the private sector realizes that no amount of investors’ money will receive an adequate return by trying to achieve an equal learning opportunity for all, the money will evaporate. They may find a place providing supports for achieving that goal. Who can develop, in a timely manner, an implementable curriculum plan that delivers learning through understanding and demonstrated competency that is responsive to societal and economic change? Bureaucracies highly invested in survival of the bureaucracy or a private entity dependent on meeting all the criteria established by real teachers in real public school classrooms all the time?

    Hopefully all can see that the dialogue can take a different path when the goal is children learning, children schooled in an environment striving to deliver an equal opportunity for every child’s personal learning journey.

  • auntiegrav

    This article sounds like its own straw man argument, without specifying the data it purports to be “ignored” by the Charter emails. Regardless of that, the missing discussion seems to be a basic question of “What do we actually need to do to educate children?” In most communities that have such failing schools, they are spending some 7 – 12 thousand dollars per child per year. If that money was spent on community service projects, letting the parents take the kids to work on those projects with them (urban farms, habitat for humanity type building projects, cleanup projects, infrastructure projects, etc.), the kids would learn more than sitting in a building ignoring some stressed out college grad that is trying to teach them a list of facts from the Old World Poetry and Top Hat Business Clubs.
    The public school system has become a crutch for the teachers insurance and retirement funds, and that’s where we are seeing the panic happen (including physical violence in Wisconsin when the monopoly bullies met up with the chutes and ladders bullies and everyone lost).
    Kids learn more from what they see and experience going on around them than you can spoon-feed them. If the System of systems is dumping money into brickwork and contracts instead of improving actual communities, then kids see that and are not going to put any value on those ‘traditional’ systems, no matter how much money or how scientific you apply them.
    If their parents are marginalized and ignored, then the kids will be angry and aggressive toward the systems that represent their oppressors.
    Your Empire can only survive for so long without maintenance of its own civilization. Civilization maintenance requires engagement and value exchange, not token distribution of little green pieces of paper and condescending blowhards with degrees.

  • Joan C. Grim

    Accountability for thee but not for me, sayeth the charter industry. It’s not nice to cheat the public. Educating our kids isn’t cheap and we expect those tax dollars to go to charter’s Incubators of Innovation™, not into your overpaid pockets.

    Of course, losing your specialized brand of excellence might be a problem for your investors in the latest bubble maker on Wall St- charter school growth funds.