Back in the early 90s, Michigan Gov. John Engler – the first of Michigan’s corporatist governors – oversaw the creation of the for-profit charter school industry in our state. Pitching it as “forcing schools to compete”, he signed legislation that opened the floodgates for charter schools to siphon away tax dollars intended to educate children into the coffers of private corporations. Two decades later, our state is dealing with the predictable (and predicted) outcome: the demise of public education in Michigan.
Engler also oversaw the creation of a one-size-fits-all method of school funding, one that ignores the fact that it costs more to educate some populations of kids than others due to things like poverty, crime, and aging, decrepit infrastructure. Disinvestment in education in places like Detroit led to starving local schools of adequate funding. As charter schools rushed in to fill the void, public schools had even fewer resources with which to “compete” leading the situation we find ourselves in today.
The idea that schools should be forced to compete against each other is a disgusting public policy that only a truly heartless and soulless corporatist could embrace. Children aren’t prizes to be awarded. They are living, breathing human beings and their education is essential to our society. Intentionally denying them access to quality neighborhood schools is a moral failure beyond words.
The excuse is always that there’s too much corruption and it’s this corruption that has led to the failure of public education. The truth of course is that there has been a failure of leadership and a failure to invest in children. From Engler’s time as governor through today, Republicans have continuously sought to educate urban kids on the cheap and to avoid making the necessary investments in their schools. And they did all of this while portraying their teachers as parasites on the jugular vein of society for daring to ask for a decent wage, reasonable benefits, and the ability to one day retire in dignity.
In addition to birthing the for-profit charter industry in Michigan and ensuring that poor kids’ schools would never be comparable to their counterparts in wealthier districts, Engler did one other thing: he used the state’s Emergency Financial Manager law to take over Detroit schools. This was the corporatist Republicans’ answer to the rampant corruption: take over the schools and show them how to run them properly. In 1999 he signed Public Act 10 which was the initial takeover of DPS. Now, two decades later, under almost continuous state oversight, Detroit schools are a corrupt as they have ever been, perhaps worse.
Which brings us to today. In an interview with The Detroit News, Engler had the audacity to say that limiting the expansion of charter schools is “morally wrong”:
The former three-term Republican governor called any constraints on charter schools “morally wrong.”
“This is a school system where the principals see nothing wrong with stealing from the district, and leadership wants to eliminate the competition in order to force children into schools where they won’t be educated,” said Engler, referring to 13 current and former DPS administrators who are facing jail time for their role in a $2.7 million bribery and kickback scheme.
The 46,000-student school district has lost more than 100,000 students during the past 10 years.
“In my mind, it’s inevitable the rest of them will also leave,” Engler said. “Because you cannot morally justify putting your child in a school where 19 of 20 will not be able to read proficiently.”
Engler said if he were still in office, he would move to eliminate the school district’s administration and convert the district into a network of independently operated neighborhood schools.
“The central office of Detroit Public Schools should be closed,” Engler said. “It’s too expensive, too ineffective and too corrupt.”
The level of audacity in this statement boggles the mind. After having ensured the utter demise of public schools in Detroit through the proliferation of for-profit charters, Engler now believes we need more of the same. And blaming it all on the classic Republican trope of “corruption” is a disgusting bit of rhetoric given that much of this corruption happened under the not-so-watchful eye of state-appointed overseers.
But the most bitter irony of all in his statement is the presumption that charter schools are the magic panacea to this rampant corruption. I call your attention to this part of Democratic State Rep. Adam Zemke’s recent floor speech:
Without this accountability, you’re handing out taxpayer-funded checks to every rotten person who can convince some of our less-than-careful and financially-incentivized charter authorizers to grant their application.
And that accreditation that the authorizers sold you on? It’s self-policing. They can already do it.
It’s not accountability. It’s a joke.
So, here this package is, a handout to criminals. And I don’t take that lightly so I’m going to give a couple of examples.
Folks like Shantell Bell, former treasurer at George Washington Carver Academy in Highland Park. Under the same laws, that this package doesn’t change, her embezzlement went unreported until her ex-boyfriend found out that she had bought a house in the city of Detroit and charged it to the school as a textbook purchase.
And, folks, more recently – that was three years ago or so – folks, just this year, like Sharon McPhail. Many of us may remember Sharon McPhail. She was part of the Kwame Kilpatrick administration. She is currently serving as the superintendent of a charter school called, ironically, Detroit Community Schools. She has no experience in education so when she was confronted that she had to be certified as an educator to be called a superintendent, she changed her title to Chief Administrative Officer.
Sharon, sadly, is not the only problem in DCS. The CFO and the Dean of the school both have been thrown out of previous public positions for unlawful acts, as well.
And last year, setting all of these things aside, last year how many DCS students passed the ACT, since we’re all concerned about academic achievement around here?
ZERO. Zero students passed the ACT. Any of the sections. Not one. And since 2007, out of the hundreds of students they’ve graduated, two have passed. TWO!
It is no surprise, of course, that corruption is rampant in charter schools. The Detroit Free Press‘s expose on charter schools in 2014 – which detailed many more examples – showed clearly that there little to no oversight of charters. They are essentially free to do what they wish.
To put the final nail in the coffin of public education in Detroit, the current DPS rescue legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House forces public schools to close if they are “failing”. Charter schools, on the other hand, are allowed to “reinvent” themselves ad nauseum.
It’ll come as no surprise to you that John Engler was one of the originators of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a corporatist front-group funded in part by the Koch brothers and the DeVos family. The Mackinac Center has long led the charge to destroy public education and to replace it with for-profit charters. They take a multi-pronged approach that includes promoting policies that starve local municipalities and schools of necessary resources, demonizing teachers, and eroding workers’ rights through the destruction of unions.
John Engler lives in Virginia these days where he is the president of the Business Roundtable, a conservative “association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies” working to promote corporatist principles and policies throughout the country.
Given his roll in creating the education catastrophe we face right now, on behalf of the entire state of Michigan, I’d like to ask him to stay in Virginia and keep his nose and voice out of our affairs.
He’s done enough damage already.
[CC image credit: Chuck Grimmett | Wikimedia Commons]