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.