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Public Education vs. Charter Schools: A Tale of Two Cities

The best of times for some schools and the worst of times for others--all in one hashtag-loaded week.

You've probably read something about Detroit Public Schools and Detroit teachers in the past couple of days. Here's the latest: DPS teachers shut down virtually all schools in the district this week, because the most recent faux-CEO (a bankruptcy judge) let teachers know that if they elected to have their annual salary spread over 26 paychecks they weren't getting their last four installments. The district is out of money--so about two-thirds of the teachers were informed they are working for free, starting now.

After two days of slogging about in the rain, carrying signs, and an emergency visit from Randi Weingarten, suddenly the summer paychecks (money teachers have already earned, remember--even though the papers called it "extended pay") were back on the table--although that may be a hollow promise. And the Detroit teachers, who hold the learning and well-being of some 40,000 students in their hands, were back on the job. I hope Weingarten used the phrase "wage theft" in her negotiations--or perhaps the correct word is "extortion." 

Because the Michigan legislature hasn't decided yet whether to let Detroit Public Schools thrive. The House is currently tinkering with bills that cut back funding even further, allow uncertified teachers in DPS, remove DPS teachers' collective bargaining rights, force teachers to re-apply for their jobs and eliminate an elected school board. In addition, DPS teachers got a tongue-lashing from several members of the legislature.

Yes, this is the same DPS whose teachers had to shame their appointed leaders into doing something about the dead rodents, mold and wavy gym floors, earlier this year. It's the same DPS that's had five "emergency managers" in the past seven years. And it's the same DPS system where 14 administrators appear to be headed for prison or plea bargains for taking kickbacks from a supply vendor.

I don't know a single DPS teacher who doesn't provide essential supplies (including snowpants) for the children she teaches, out of her own funds. Imagine learning that principals in your district have been pocketing thousands of dollars out of the supply budget while you're stopping at the dollar store on the way home, just to make it through the next day. They have taken to social media to plead their case, because nobody else seems to be listening:

I am a teacher. This is what I do for a living and what I live to do. I chose to be a teacher in a high poverty district because that is where I felt I would have the most impact. I have worked diligently for 27 years to provide my students with the very BEST education they could receive. I've done it despite ceilings falling down around me. I've done it despite rodents crawling in my room. I've done it despite the fact that my current wages are now 25% less than in 2001. I've done it despite having to purchase the supplies and tools from my own meager wages. I've done it despite increasingly insane demands by administrators, legislations and public opinion that attempted to take away my ability to teach honestly and instead succumb to standardized tests that were inappropriate for my students.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, Detroit teachers, heroes one and all. The irony doesn't escape those who know that you are holding that district together.

So that's Detroit. Four hours to the north, in Traverse City, down a winding drive out in the woodsy country, there's a beautiful new charter school--the Grand Traverse Academy. Their staff--all charter teachers and operators in the nation, in fact--got a shout-out of gratitude from the POTUS on Monday, just about the time Detroit teachers were cutting holes out of trash bags to march in the pouring rain.

"Safe, loved and learning!" That's the Grand Traverse Academy's motto--and who can argue? Their website also features their tech-rich STEM program, and lots of beautiful photos so you can see exactly who goes to GTA. There's a click-on link labeled "Transparency" where you can ascertain that they're getting over $10 million in public funding-- but you don't get to know what the teachers are being paid or if they're getting any health insurance, because that information is suppressed, since teachers are "hired" by a third-party agency.

In fact, there are a lot of financial secrets at the Grand Traverse Academy. For more than five years, its founder has been playing fast and loose with that public money, shielded by his appointed Board and various partners in shady charter start-ups. Presently, he's on the hook for $3.5 million in money used inappropriately (mostly, "loaned" to himself to start new cash-cow schools and pay himself for his "creative" financial know-how). That's right--$3.5 million.

It's been going for half a decade and only recently have we seen this covered to any extent in the local newspaper. A couple of local bloggers have been doggedly following the story, accruing documents which make clear just how rotten the whole scenario is. A former GTA superintendent, alarmed about financial malfeasance, blew a whistle, tentatively--and got fired for her pains. I have perused hundreds of pages of documentation, and it's jaw-grinding stuff.

But nobody--especially the local media--seems to be paying much attention to Grand Traverse Academy. Contrast that with the daily news stories coming out of Detroit, wherein DPS principals who skimmed from their supply budgets feebly protest that they used some of the largesse from the kickback scheme to give students gift cards or take them on field trips. In Traverse City, it was one crooked guy, who used public money to solely benefit himself and his business ventures and cronies.

Why does the Grand Traverse Academy get a pass from the media? Because they're perceived as a "business," a factor in parent "choice," an alternative for the discerning consumer? This matters. The public schools in Traverse City and neighboring towns are good schools--award-winning, in fact, with outstanding, signature programming and demonstrable academic results.

But Traverse City is scheduled to close three schools this year, due to dropping enrollment. One is in the poorest township in the county. Charter schools upset the balance in investing available monies and talent in K-12 students. And clearly, there's little oversight. They're a business opportunity, what the GTA founder himself called "the golden goose."

Detroit and Flint, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. were the first charter frontier. It was easy to persuade your average citizen to think: Well. You know, Detroit. They had to do something.

Next step, however: Build gorgeous new buildings and use public money to fracture solid, well-run public educational systems. For private profit.

Ask yourself: Why are the papers and the policy-makers all over those protesting teachers in Detroit--while the white-collar crime in charter world goes virtually unnoticed?

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