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Problems in Mich. Charter School Sector: Can They Happen in Other States?

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Wasteful spending and poor academic performance in Michigan's charter school sector revealed in this week's Detroit Free Press investigation are not unique to Michigan, but these issues aren't rampant across every state in the country, the paper says.

The special report, which is the culmination of a year-long investigation by the newspaper, points to innovative and high-performing charters in Michigan, but it also says lax oversight is breeding significant abuses within the sector.

State charter school laws and cultures vary widely across the country. One major way Michigan differs from other states is in the number of its charter schools run by for-profit companies—Michigan has the most in the country, according to the Detroit Free Press:

"Many states have tougher charter laws than Michigan and half a dozen states—from Washington to New York— prohibit full-service, for-profit companies from running their schools. 

The Mississippi Legislature passed a new charter law in 2013 that bars for-profits from providing comprehensive management services. 

Three years earlier, the New York State Assembly banned for-profit management companies from opening new schools but allowed them to continue operating their existing schools." 

The investigation found several examples of Michigan charter school operators enriching themselves through a system where state law doesn't entirely prohibit insider dealing. And, because many schools are run by private companies, there is little transparency into how taxpayer money is spent.

"Michigan is an outlier in the number of authorizers and the involvement of the for-profit sector which I think increases the risk rather than makes it inevitable that there will be problems," said Jeffrey Henig, chair of the Education Policy and Social Analysis Department at New York City-based Columbia University's Teachers College, in an interview with Education Week.

Both Henig and the Detroit Free Press hold Massachusetts and Minnesota up as examples of states that heavily scrutinize their charter schools and authorizers. In Michigan, there are no state guidelines for screening charter school applicants or shutting down poorly performing ones.

"There's a split even within the charter movement between those who believe that chartering needs to be done in the context of good government oversight and accountability [...] and the notion that the key characteristic of charters is that they be liberated from government oversight," Henig said. "Michigan is a state that very early on adopted the practices of the second group [...] along with places like Arizona."

The Detroit Free Press series runs through Sunday, June 29. 

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