“Profits Key.” Art Credit: GotCredit.com

September 5, 2017; New York Times Magazine

NPQ has written extensively about the privatization of public education and research that shows the detrimental impact on education. Here is another version of that story, this time in Michigan.

Struggling public school districts, inadequate public funding, and free-market political leadership appear to be all the ingredients needed to whip up a good batch of “school reform” these days. As a prime example, take the schools in Highland Park. In 2012, the state of Michigan took over this economically challenged district so it could be reformed. The state’s formula for success, as described by the New York Times Magazine, was typical of plans being pushed across the nation and promoted by the federal government: “void the teacher’s union contract, fire all employees and turn over control of the schools to a private, for-profit charter operator.” In other words, “charterize” the district.

Michigan’s aggressive use of this approach has made it a national leader in transforming public education from valued public service to state-subsidized educational product. Its aggressive efforts make it, according to the Times, “a laboratory in which consumer choice and a shifting landscape of supply and demand (and profit motive, in the case of many charters) were pitched as ways to improve life in the classroom for the state’s 1.5 million public school students.”

Because this formula is supported so strongly by President Trump, Education Secretary DeVos (who was a major force in driving Michigan down this path), and many mega-philanthropists, Michigan’s path can indicate the route they intend to take public education down.

Reformers believe that in order for schools to benefit from the power of the free market, they must be set loose from the constraints of government’s bureaucracy. NPQ has addressed this in the past, but others have written about the privatization of education as the next frontier for investors in a comprehensive way. Many consider Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error a key source on the matter. In Michigan, this has meant minimizing or even eliminating the power of school districts and their elected leadership. Schools no longer belong to their communities, as funding follows the student and students can attend schools wherever they choose. Governance is unelected, corporate-like, and accountability diffuse. According to the Times, “What happened to Michigan’s schools isn’t solely, or even primarily, an education story: It’s a business story.

Michigan has allowed market forces to replace the planning and oversight roles for which government was traditionally responsible. Control of public education was moved from local school officials to a diverse statewide network that includes universities and community colleges alongside local school boards. A chartering organization can sanction and supervise schools anywhere in the state with no requirement that they understand or are committed to the community the school will serve.

This suggests that rather than plan for the needs of a community from a single, local perspective, Michigan wants the broader market to serve as the control rod. A school in the southeastern corner of the state serving a poor community of color can be chartered by an organization hundreds of miles away with little or no connection to the school’s home neighborhood. The motivation of a chartering organization can be the welfare of the children, or the three percent of per-pupil funding it will receive for its efforts.

The result has been an unbridled expansion of charters and a glutted marketplace:

Since 2002, K-12 student enrollment has dropped by 214,000 in Michigan, but the number of charter schools has doubled. In 2011, state lawmakers abolished the longstanding charter-school cap…So many new schools have opened in Detroit that there are an estimated 30,000 empty seats in the district.

Finding qualified teachers is difficult, as limited supply must stretch to cover too many classrooms. With open enrollment in force, scarce resources must be spent on marketing if a school expects to attract students and remain viable.

In Michigan, public education is a profit-making business. For-profit organizations can and do own and operate public schools, and for-profit businesses have grown to provide goods and services to the charter community. Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated and managed by for-profit management organizations. Other for-profits facilitate the buying and selling of school property, finance school operations, and provide the array of goods and services a school needs, day to day. All of this business runs with little oversight, open to conflicts of interest and fraud. When these parasitic businesses fail, or privately-operated charter schools run into financial trouble, they close up shop and exit the marketplace. Their debts may remain a public responsibility to be repaid from taxes, and their students are on their own to find another school to attend.

Scott VanderWerp, who runs the public finance group at Oak Ridge Financial, told the Times how profitable the educational sector could be doing transactions that had little to do with educating children: Just buy some buildings “for a couple hundred thousand bucks, lease them to the school for a couple of years, and then sell them to the school for a few million.” Money meant to teach children is quietly converted into corporate earnings.

If education was greatly improved, these would be mere bumps in the road that could be smoothed in the future. As NPQ has previously reported, Michigan education is not better; in fact, it is much worse. Recent measures of school performance do not treat Michigan schools kindly.

A Brookings Institution analysis done this year of national test scores ranked Michigan last among all states when it came to improvements in student proficiency. And a 2016 analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest…found that 70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings…Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live.

The market-based educational reform experiment has been underway for many years. In scattered sites, the results are marginally positive; in most cases, the schools are no better than they were before, and often worse. We know enough to know that the market is not the magic bullet to deal with problems in traditional public schooling. Inadequate funding is nor improved by adding competition or funneling dollars to the profit bucket. Weak communities don’t get stronger because we distance schools from community. Change may be needed, but not the one the White House and its associated megadonors are pushing.—Martin Levine