School reformer demands reform of school reform

Expert testimony before the Michigan statehouse:

Charter schools have strayed so far from their original intent that they should be renamed “corporate” or “franchise” schools instead, a Western Michigan University professor told a state Senate Committee.

Bills backed by Education Committee chairman Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, would expand opportunities for cyber charters, allow parents to petition a district to convert traditional schools to charters, expand dual-learning opportunities and require all districts to participate in a school choice program. Districts also would be allowed to hire private firms for teaching.

Western professor Gary Miron, who is nationally known for his charter school research, told the committee that the schools have strayed far from their original intent of being innovative, locally operated alternatives to traditional schools.

“They’ve gone away from those original charter ideas to the point that they should probably be called ‘corporate’ schools or ‘franchise’ schools instead,” Miron told the senators. “I like charter schools. I like the notion of charter schools. But what we’re talking about now is something that is very different. We need to go back to the original intent and goals.”

Miron said for-profit management companies dominate the charter landscape, and exercise such control over schools that local boards of education overseeing the schools have difficulty expressing authority or autonomy. Miron said that while traditional schools tend to be segregated, but charters have “accelerated” the segregation on terms of race, class, special needs and language. He said research shows there are few charter schools that show students performing higher than nearby districts.

I would suggest to Professor Miron that there isn’t going to be any re-regulation of public schools in Michigan. I think I can tell him what happened to his reform movement, too. We deregulated schools, Republicans took statehouses in Michigan and Ohio, moved quickly to get those pesky unions out of the way, and we’re now going full-steam ahead on privatization.

I particularly love how lobbyists and others have taken “school choice” and turned it into a mandate:

require all districts to participate in a school choice program

It’s called bait and switch, Professor Miron, and the people that live here are finding it very difficult to push back against the massive amounts of out-of-state money that is directed at destroying unions and leaving the field clear to privatize our public schools.

This is from Dr. Miron’s testimony before the US House, in June of this year (pdf):

Who Stole My Charter School Reform?
Even as the original goals for charter schools are largely ignored, charter schools fulfill other purposes. Promote privatization of public school system. Charter schools have provided an easy route for privatization; many states allow private schools to convert to public charter schools, and increasing the use of private education management organizations is increasingly being seen as the mode for expanding charter schools.

Today, one-third of the nation’s charter schools are being operated by private education management organizations (EMOs) and this proportion is growing rapidly each year. In states such as Michigan, close to 80% of charter schools are operated by private for-profit EMOs.

80% for-profit in Michigan. Anyone think we’re going to be re-regulating public schools anytime soon?

Claims regarding privatization remain rhetorical and unsupported by evidence. The recent economic crisis has shown that our economy requires greater public oversight and regulations, a finding that can be reasonably extended to markets in education.

Strong and effective lobbying and advocacy groups for charter schools quickly reinterpret research and shape the message to fit their needs rather than the long-term interests of the movement. They attack evidence that questions the performance of charter schools and offer anecdotal evidence, rarely substantiated by technical reports, in rebuttal. Such lobbying has undermined reasoned discourse and made improving charter schools more difficult.

Sound familiar?

While he’s wondering who stole his charter schools, I’m wondering who is stealing my public schools, and is it too late to stop them? I appreciate his honesty and integrity at admitting these realities, and I believe he was and is well-intentioned. I just don’t believe reality and honesty and integrity and good intentions are going to prevail up against all that money.

51 replies
  1. 1
    NonyNony says:


    I really hate it when academics get involved in politics. Guys like Miron are almost the quintessential Ivory Tower Academic. Who could have foreseen that his noble goal of public charter schools – that allow innovation and new ideas precisely because they are a route around local control by elected school boards and state mandates placed on traditional public schools – could be perverted into something where for-profit entities make their way into the space, gobble up the money, provide sub-standard education, obscure their finances, and get their cronies in the statehouse to make it even easier to steal taxpayer money?

    I mean, who could have known that would happen? Except for maybe anyone who actually has paid attention to American politics for the last century and has watched what happens when you throw open shit like this to private enterprise. And anyone who has watched the Republican fight against unions and saw that charter schools could be easily weaponized to use against teachers unions. Oh and anyone who knows enough to fucking know why public schools aren’t hotbeds of innovation – because they have to conform to local control and state mandates.

    In short anyone whose nose wasn’t stuck in education research where things get abstracted out to the point where politics are not even mentioned. Which, unfortunately, does not seem to be Dr. Miron.

  2. 2
    Gilles de Rais says:

    Dr. Frankenstein doesn’t understand why his monster is killing the entire village.

  3. 3
    jwb says:

    I agree: money rules. And it’s hard to know how to effectively resist this march toward privatization, which is increasingly hollowing out our public sphere.

  4. 4
    Kay says:



    That’s exactly how I feel this morning. I don’t have any problem with academics. I just wish the school reformers had given some thought to what might happen when profits were introduced into the mix, when they were happily deregulating:

    Susan Barrett quit her volunteer leadership position at SFC in Portland because wealthy investors are now driving the organization. “I want to make sure that people pay close attention to who is on the SFC board, where their money is coming from, and think critically about whether or not the agendas they are promoting will bring the results parents and community members hope for in public education,” Barrett recently wrote.

    SFC is “Stand For Children”. The irony does not escape me :)

    I believe they’re outgunned, Nony. All the expert testimony in the world isn’t going to put this horse back in the barn.

  5. 5


    Do you think that public schools are an endangered species?

  6. 6
    NonyNony says:


    I believe they’re outgunned, Nony. All the expert testimony in the world isn’t going to put this horse back in the barn.

    Oh I know they’re outgunned. And I know that they’re shocked that this is happening. Many of them had “good intentions” and they’ve seen what happens – Hell got a truckload of new bricks and can smooth out some rough spots in the driveway.

    But what are they going to do about it? Probably nothing. All that energy that COULD have been spent finding ways to enhance and repair our public infrastructure and instead they worked their asses off researching ways to destroy it. There’s no reason that “charter schools” ever had to enter the conversation – they showed up because academic researchers and school reform advocates were annoyed at the politics of school systems and wanted to find a way to route around the politics. Well in the US when you route around politics you always find yourself at the mercy of the biggest non-democratic political force in the country – corporations.

    This should have been anticipated. Every sob story I’ve been hearing from school-reform advocates here in Ohio boils down to the same thing – they were angry about having to deal with a local school board that didn’t want to listen to their new and exciting ideas for education, so they pushed for a way to have a school that wasn’t accountable to an elected school board. This is inherently un-democratic, but they didn’t see it that way. And now it’s biting them in the ass.

    I’d laugh, except it’s biting the rest of us in the ass too. We may lose our public schools in Ohio because of this, and that pisses me off.

  7. 7
    mark says:

    Good post.

    Still wish people would quit using the Lunztian “privatization” and use the more correct “profitization” or maybe for the rubes “profit-off-the-taxpayerization”

    Until we consistently, repeatedly fight back against the propoganda, they will keep winning.

  8. 8
    kay says:

    @Linda Featheringill:

    I don’t know. I live in a rural area, and we’re probably not populous enough or wealthy enough to sustain a for-profit venture. Too, in rural areas, public schools are more than schools. They’re central to the community. We get SRO crowds for high school musicals and sports, because, well, there isn’t any other entertainment :)
    Is that over? Where an elected school board and administrators and principals and teachers who live here (and spend their money here, incidentally) represent “public schools”? I hope not. If that goes, the whole public center of this town goes. It’s the one and only thing we all share. It isn’t Mayberry, so I don’t mean to romanticize it, but an “EMO” replacing the authority and accountability of (public) administrators and others that we know? Did people really anticipate that when they were sold charter schools? I don’t think they did.

  9. 9
    dr. bloor says:

    Professor Miron is what the monied classes refer to as a “useful idiot.”

  10. 10
    kay says:


    that pisses me off

    For me, it was seeing charter school proponents suing their for-profit management companies. If you’re in county court, seeking discovery on where your money went, something has gone terribly wrong. They’re not getting redress from any elected or appointed body, a legislature, elected school board or appointed charter board.

    They’re in court, the last resort. Whoa! What happened?

  11. 11
    jibeaux says:

    wrote a long impassioned comment you all would’ve deeply appreciated. FYWP ate it. Testing.

  12. 12
    agrippa says:

    I am afraid that Miron has been quite naive. Of course, business interests will take over charter schools. That is the logical outcome.

  13. 13
    Kay says:


    I looked for it in the moderation section and it isn’t there. Sorry about that.

  14. 14
    jwb says:

    @NonyNony: A good example of what so often happens when you mistake fantasy projections for reality: they turn into nightmares. You learn that so many of those things you thought were roadblocks were actually serving very important regulatory functions that can’t be undone without bringing everything else down with it. On the other hand, then you look at a dysfunctional institution like the Senate and wonder whether it would actually be worse without all the institutional roadblocks. Hard to imagine. Which is why the temptation will always be there—and is perhaps not even always wrong. That’s the challenge.

  15. 15
    jibeaux says:

    I have two kids in public schools, and I generally appreciate it and think they’re doing a great job. But as the public schools become increasingly driven by testing and uniformity, I’m really sympathetic to the goals of the more idealistic charter school supporters. I don’t think they spend more than 25 minutes a day doing anything not directly tied to a numbered competency on the standard course of study. I appreciate the integration of the curriculum, but I think it would be nice if sometimes they just wrote poems, not poems about the planets or the multiplication tables. I think it would be nice if they could just do a dance, not a dance that’s a representation of the stages of metamorphosis. I think it would be nice if they didn’t spend three months drilling for the EOGs, and if they could have more than fifteen minutes for lunch, if they had PE more often than every six school days (don’t get me started on the calendar), and if they could celebrate birthdays with a damn cupcake every once in a while. I think it would be nice if some joy and spontaneity could be a part of their school day. So I really appreciate the folks who see a role for a Montessori school, or a bilingual school, or an Afrocentric school, or what-have-you, and create an environment where those kids thrive and enjoy school and that have very high rates of parent satisfaction. I am very sympathetic to the idea that one size fits all doesn’t fit all. Is there anyone out there doing this right? Maybe someone who has limited it to nonprofits, and caps the number, and does serious re-evaluation before relicensing the charters?

  16. 16
    gex says:

    @kay: Soon enough the right wing will have limited the little people’s access to the courts. Recent rulings class action suits and Citizen’s United amply demonstrate who has standing in our legal system.

  17. 17
    Kay says:


    I think what they found out was they needed actual expertise to manage the schools. Payroll. Funding. Accounting. Hiring and firing. Nuts and bolts stuff. People won’t do that work for free, so they outsourced it, but, in Ohio anyway, the for-profit managers are controlling the local people who hired them.

    WTF? How did that happen? Who works for whom here? Who gave the for-profit managers all that autonomy?

  18. 18
    jibeaux says:

    I guess what I’m getting at is that I see a place for a charter that offers something *different*, that offers real flexibility. I wonder if there’s anyone licensing charter schools when they can show, say, that they are offering a method of teaching that is both effective and substantially different from the way the public schools do it. Some of them, for example, have made the trade off that they’re not going to have specialized teachers for music and PE but have class sizes of 15. If you have a child who needs a lot of individualized attention and you can’t afford private tutoring, I see a school like that being a lifeline for you. But if your school is just basically a garden-variety private school taking public funds to run it, I completely agree that it’s a misuse of the whole concept.

  19. 19
    jibeaux says:

    @Kay: Sheesh. I guess I need to follow up on your links. I’m just wondering is this an either-or proposition, or are there ways to get these charter schools back to what they were intended to be?

  20. 20
    Kay says:


    If you read the whole thing (and I realize it’s long) his recommendation is a moratorium on expansion of charters until…what, I don’t know.

    They regain control of their movement? Reams of expert testimony somehow take the profit motive out? For-profit lobbying is outlawed? Unicorns roam the earth?

  21. 21
    The Snarxist Formerly Known as Kryptik says:

    The pain just means its working, and needs to be done more. Just like Austerity.

    I never thought I’d say this, but we may actually be staring at the death of public schools by fiat at this rate. :/

  22. 22 I try to be amused says:

    There goes another utopian idea that might possibly work if humans weren’t so, well, human.

  23. 23
    MariedeGournay says:

    Leave it to the moneychangers to take a good idea (schools set up to experiment with different pedagogical approaches) into a way to make a quick buck off the taxpayer. Most of these so called innovative capitalists are the true welfare queens.

  24. 24
    kay says:


    And just so you know, I love kids (well, most of them, well, many of them) and I completely agree on unstructured time and letting them roam a little or a lot.
    I personally addressed it by keeping structured or more specifically adult-directed activities outside of a school to a minimum, because they were like little soldiers at school. But I’m no expert. I was winging it, and to each his own.

  25. 25
    PeakVT says:

    Charters and vouchers are both sold with the rhetoric of “choice”, but they’re ultimately about creating an even more stratified educational system. That’s appealing to a lot of parents, but in the end it will be bad for the country.

  26. 26
    Very Reverend Crimson Fire of Compassion says:

    I was asked to submit a paper last semester on where I saw the educational field in five years. I suggested that we’re witnessing the death of the general education public school, and that in a few more years, the only remnant of education still driven by public funds and public oversight would be special education, which nobody else wants. I got an “A”, and a very disturbed prof.

  27. 27
    Bill Murray says:

    @jibeaux: but isn’t the drive for more standardized testing in public schools related to the efforts to get for profit schools?

  28. 28
    PeakVT says:

    @Very Reverend Crimson Fire of Compassion: You should put that online. Sounds like a flamewar discussion starter.

  29. 29
    jibeaux says:

    @kay: Yeah, I do too. They need that goofing around time, especially since kids no longer really roam miles of neighborhood in unsupervised packs too much. They’re capped at no more than two extracurricular activities at a time, and even that can be crazy overwhelming.

  30. 30
    Bludger says:

    NCLB was clearly used to make public schools so reprehensible that parents would push for the catnip of the “innovative curriculum’s” advertised by charter schools. NCLB tee’d it up and the EMO’s are ready to knock it out of the park – at least in Cherokee county Georgia.

    /tinfoilhat OFF

    Our Galtian overlords couldn’t be this clever?

  31. 31
    Boots Day says:

    Here in Colorado, we have true school choice: Any student can be open-enrolled into any public school that has space for him or her after the local kids have all enrolled. We live in a suburb of Denver that we chose expressly for the excellence of the public schools here.

    What’s interesting is that the kids who are open-enrolling from out of the district aren’t poorer kids from the city of Denver; they’re wealthier kids coming in from the heavily Republican, low-tax exurbs, where the schools are widely regard as crappy.

  32. 32
    jibeaux says:

    @Bill Murray: I think what’s driving it is this drumbeat for “accountability”. You can hardly go wrong as a national politician talking about how the schools need more accountability, No Child Left Behind and all that nonsense. And it’s not as if there wasn’t, at one point, a reason behind it. Twenty years ago, before our state implemented its accountability standards, we had districts with a quarter of their students reading on grade level. That’s unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable to me that depending on where you live your experience with the public schools within the same state could be so wildly different. I think you have a right to send your children to your local public school and expect better than even odds that the school is going to teach them to read. It led to a lawsuit on the disparities in funding, and a favorable court decision for poor counties mandating greater school funding. But the idealistic goal of having more kids who can do math and reading better has turned into this life-sucking monster of test scores, test scores, test scores. I don’t know what the answer is, either.

  33. 33
    Gilles de Rais says:

    NCLB was clearly used to make public schools so reprehensible that parents would push for the catnip of the “innovative curriculum’s” advertised by charter schools.

    @Bludger: You forgot the part about “make the teacher’s job so hellish that new teachers last, on average, only three years” but otherwise, I think you nailed it.

    My wife’s got twelve years until early retirement; I don’t think she’s going to make it. The job is getting too hard, the testing far too onerous, the “summers off” is in reality about two or three weeks vacation at the most, and the oft-touted “job security” is starting to look more and more like a pair of handcuffs than anything desirable. We can’t afford to lose the income but I’d rather be poor than miserable.

  34. 34
    Mark S. says:

    Interesting lawsuit concerning unpaid internships:

    Two men who worked on the hit movie “Black Swan” have mounted an unusual challenge to the film industry’s widely accepted practice of unpaid internships by filing a lawsuit on Wednesday asserting that the production company had violated minimum wage and overtime laws by hiring dozens of such interns. . . [Alex Footman] said his responsibilities included preparing coffee for the production office, ensuring that the coffee pot was full, taking and distributing lunch orders for the production staff, taking out the trash and cleaning the office.

    Unpaid internships are supposed to provide an educational benefit for the employee and are not supposed to just be a way for employers to not pay workers. I’ve been interested in this issue since reading this horrifying article.

  35. 35


    Well in the US when you route around politics you always find yourself at the mercy of the biggest non-democratic political force in the country – corporations.

    QFT. This is the biggest flaw (or hidden agenda) with the whole Libertarian project. Eliminating government doesn’t produce the Libertarian paradise of free choice, it just results in unaccountable corporations taking over the jobs government got pushed out of.

  36. 36
    kay says:

    @Gilles de Rais:

    You forgot the part about “make the teacher’s job so hellish that new teachers last, on average, only three years” but otherwise, I think you nailed it.

    Miron, again:

    High attrition of teachers and administrators, ranging from 15 to 30 percent, leads to greater instability and lost investment. Attrition from the removal of ineffective teachers—a potential plus of charters—explains only a small portion of the annual exodus.

    I think it comes from a way of (conservative) thinking that says “actual ground level experience doesn’t matter, and isn’t valuable”. They’re going to manage the interchangeable cog-people into.. excellence! Top-down. It makes managers King. Unsurprisingly. Something has to justify the huge salaries.

  37. 37
    IrishGirl says:

    Why not start an alternative to the public schools AND the for-profit schools? Non-profit charter school? Does anybody know enough to know how many are out there? How are they faring….would it be worth it to start one? Maybe that’s my next career….

  38. 38
    matryoshka says:

    Someone above asked if anyone was doing education right. I immediately thought of John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down. There are many good books written by actual educators about what truly works and what doesn’t, and what the real agendas are that drive the school day: Paolo Friere, John Holt, and Neal Postman come to mind. Maria Montessori had it mostly right for younger kids, based on my experience as a parent and teacher. However, I left teaching with the unhelpful feeling that the whole enterprise of public education was dead in the water for political reasons, not pedagogical ones. Charter schools are just another facet of the decade-long transfer of all wealth to the top 1%. When the money isn’t there any more, even the corporate schools will be gone, and then what?

  39. 39
    El Cruzado says:

    @Boots Day: I’m going to guess you can choose any school you want but not how you get your kid there?

  40. 40
    Linda says:

    Add Dr. Miron to Diane Ravitch as one-time believers who will be put up in front of the firing squad for their heresy. I remember reading about a charter school proponent in Milwaukee, many years ago, who said in advance that she pretty much knew that white charter school backers were just using the educational opportunities of poor black kids (like hers) as a front to wreck the public school system and give money to middle classed parents. It was a trade-off she was willing to make. I guess, at least she had her eyes wide open.

  41. 41
    VAdem says:

    I’m understanding the occupy wall street folks better now. How do you express that the financial folks are trying to take every public good there is easly and give a snappy demand.

  42. 42
    jcgrim says:

    Privatizing schools has been on the right wing and neo-liberal agenda for 20 years. No Child left behind and Larry Summer’s pick of Arne Duncan as Obama’s Secretary of Education gave the “vulture philanthropists” steroids with Race to the Top.

    Corporate predators are going after every aspect of the education sector- higher education and teacher training,
    standardized testing, online data tracking and learning, online high schools are legal in states that took Race to the Top Money.
    Chicago, al la Mayor Rahm, is slowly breaking the backs of the teacher’s union one vertebrae at a time:

    Groups of parents, teachers, public school advocates, are fighting back at:

  43. 43
    gene108 says:


    But what are they going to do about it? Probably nothing. All that energy that COULD have been spent finding ways to enhance and repair our public infrastructure and instead they worked their asses off researching ways to destroy it. There’s no reason that “charter schools” ever had to enter the conversation – they showed up because academic researchers and school reform advocates were annoyed at the politics of school systems and wanted to find a way to route around the politics. Well in the US when you route around politics you always find yourself at the mercy of the biggest non-democratic political force in the country – corporations. This should have been anticipated.

    Hindsight is 20/20.

    The idea of charter schools isn’t a bad idea.

    Most education reform comes from some small step taken somewhere that is found to work and then adopted by other schools.

    What’s interesting is the lack of accountability legislatures have built into the system. If construction contracts, for example, were given away to cronies who did nothing in return, at some point the public will catch on to this and punish those politicians.

    In most government contracts there’s a pretty good degree of accountability, with regards to contractors having to report expenses, progress, etc. This is one reason there’s bureaucracy in government or dealing with government. Government tries to put more into accounting for its expenses than private firms.

    I figure voter anger, if corruption is found out and traditional institutional checks on work being performed, would blunt massive abuses of charter schools.

    The fact it doesn’t seem to create voter backlash is interesting or maybe I’m missing something and Ohio folks are going to throw a bunch of folks out of state wide office in 2012 or 2014 and the charter school laws are going to be rewritten.

  44. 44
    Boots Day says:

    @El Cruzado: Yes, transportation is up to the parents, which certainly limits the options for a lot of people.

  45. 45
    Exurban Mom says:

    So much goodness here in this thread. From my study of public education in my state (Ohio), I feel like there is a (small) role for charters to play. BUT: They need to be PART of the district, not separate from it. They need to experiment with pedagogy and report out their best results so that more teachers can use that info. They need to be accountable to the local board and the taxpayers, remaining NON-PROFIT. What we are seeing in our state is for-profit, completely unaccountable schools popping up everywhere. And a legislature making it easier on them.

    Seriously, what will happen if education becomes privatized and for-profit? When a kid shows up with severe learning disabilities, who will cost 2 or 3 or 4 or more times what an “average” student costs to educate? Will those kids have nowhere to go? Will we lose schools as one of the few places left where people of many backgrounds intermix? I know the richest aren’t there, the most devout Catholics might be at the local parochial, but c’mon, are we going to return to segregation by class and race?

    Since when is it even rational to think about education as a for-profit enterprise? We’re not making widgets here, people! We’re educating children!

  46. 46

    The corporations are not taking over the public schools so that they can destroy the teachers’ unions; they are destroying the unions so that they can take over the public schools. They want the $600 billion that is spent annually on elementary and secondary education.

    Once they get they attach themselves to that flow of funds they only need to give a few small slices of the cheese to a few state and federal legislators. The legislators will make sure that the money never stops coming. For an instructive comparison, look at military spending.

  47. 47
    kay says:


    You said it better than I did.

    Now then. What do we do about it?

  48. 48
    Ohio Mom says:

    Re: what to do about it. For a while I thought, “Wait ’til those suburban PTA Moms figure this out — they will be a force to reckon with.” In my neighborhood at least, when they organize something, it’s ORGANIZED.

    But I gave up on that hope because they don’t seem to get any of this at all.

    It’s a relative small slice of the population that has kids in school at any time; even if you are a parent, if your kids are under 5 or over 18, the schools probably aren’t on your radar much. I think that works against getting enough pushback going.

    On the other hand, this whole issue is finally getting some attention, so maybe some seeds are being planted.

    BTW, really liked that Dissent article jcgrim @42 linked to. As a bonus, it describes why Bil Gate’s efforts to fight malaria in Africa are as flawed as his ed reform efforts.

  49. 49
    jron says:

    Can I just recommend this song from the 90’s by the Jazz Butcher?

    “Privatised hospitals
    Privatised water
    Privatised electric
    Privatised gas
    Privatised buses
    Privatised railways
    Privatised garbage
    Privatised jails
    …And people wonder where all their fucking money’s gone”

  50. 50
    Guy who has read Gary Miron's work says:

    Gary Miron does some of the best research on charter schools in America. He has done multiple studies on student achievement, teacher turnover, financing and enrollment patterns. A lot of the arguments that critics of charter schools make are based on his work. My own sense is he’s a professor, so he maintains an academic sensibility, and he lets the evidence speak for itself. Some of his work, including reviews of right wing think tank reports is here

  51. 51

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