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Privatizing education has been a ‘catastrophic failure’: Don’t expect Betsy DeVos’ mini-me to fix it

There are 295 charter schools in Michigan. And under a Republican-controlled legislature, 81% of them have contracts with private management companies with no demonstrated interest in detailing how they spend taxpayer dollars. Those management companies aren’t accountable to laws requiring them to detail just how much of the $1.4 billion they collected in state funding is going to education versus profit, Chalkbeat Detroit reported.

“What you get is a lump sum,” state Superintendent Michael Rice said during a board meeting the nonprofit news organization covered. “What the management company does with that lump is what it thinks it needs to do to provide that range of services. We don’t have access to the individual line items.”

It’s almost as if former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ wildest money-making dream for her home state is starting to come true. 

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Democrat and state board President Casandra Ulbrich told Chalkbeat Detroit: “All of these schools that we’re talking about here are public schools. Every one of them is using our tax dollars.”

Democrats in the state legislature have introduced bills in both chambers dubbed the School Freedom, Accountability, and Transparency Act to require educational management companies to adhere to the Freedom of Information Act and disclose how they spend tax dollars.

Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor, told Chalkbeat Detroit the bills likely won’t pass this session, but if Democrats gain control this November, it could change matters.

Tudor Dixon, a steel industry businesswoman and the Republican candidate for Michigan governor, told the news nonprofit she wants to ensure “money follows the student,” but she didn’t disclose to Chalkbeat her true sentiments about vouchers, using state tax dollars to fund private schools.

Michigan Democrats wrote this of the gubernatorial hopeful and DeVos:

In addition to Betsy DeVos’ devastating voucher plan that would cut public education funding by up to $500 million annually and sell public schools for parts, she recently said that she “think[s] the Department of Education should not exist.” Dixon has both championed this voucher plan and agreed with the DeVos plan to abolish the Department of Education, even going so far as to say she would support changing Michigan’s constitution to dismantle public schools.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed two bills last year to give tax breaks on donations used to support private school tuition and other educational services, The Detroit News reported.

“Simply put, our schools cannot provide the high-quality education our kids deserve if we turn private schools into tax shelters for the wealthy,” Whitmer said. “The movement to privatize education in this state has been a catastrophic failure, causing Michigan students to fall behind the rest of the nation.”

DeVos, former President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the country’s education department, and her family spent $3 million pushing a failed ballot referendum to use state funding for private school vouchers in 2000, NBC News reported.

“She spent the next two decades spending heavily on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts to promote alternatives to traditional public schools,” journalist Erin Einhorn wrote.

That simply won’t fly with Democrats.

President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to defund for-profit charter schools. He hasn’t quite gotten there yet; but the U.S. Department of Education enacted new guidelines making it more difficult for for-profit charter schools to land taxpayer funding without accountability and transparency.

The U.S. Department of Education got more than 25,000 public comments when it released the guidelines in March. A Michigan education association representing more than 200 charter schools in the state, filed a lawsuit last month fighting the new rules. “Congress had a clear goal—‘increase the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the United States (…),’” attorneys wrote in the suit. “Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education is channeling the Administration’s apparent hostility towards charter schools into unconstitutional rulemaking, which will rob the neediest students of educational opportunity.”

The new rules require charter school funding applicants to:

• Provide detailed information on proposed school governance and ensure meaningful, ongoing opportunities for family, educator, and community input into school decision making;

• State whether they have entered, or plan to enter into, a contract with a for-profit management organization and if so, provide detailed information regarding such contract;

• Report on individuals who have a financial interest in the for-profit management organization, including any affiliations or conflicts of interest involving charter school staff or board members; • Detail descriptions of any actual or perceived conflicts of interest and the steps the applicant took, or will take, to avoid conflicts of interest; and

• Assure that any for-profit management contract is subject to important controls.

They follow failure after failure regarding how charter schools are held accountable.

“Since 2001, almost 15% of the charter schools and proposed charter schools that received federal funding either never opened or closed prior to the end of the grant period—these schools received more than $174 million in taxpayer dollars,” the Department of Education wrote in a blog post in July. “It is critical that in planning for a new charter school, as with the establishment of any new school, there be reasonable evidence demonstrating the need in the community for that school.”

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