This past fall I attended a presentation on the structure of charter schools hosted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Detroit. As one can imagine, the audience that night was mainly educators. What one could not imagine is how few of them actually knew or understood the hierarchy of the schools they were working within.
Charter schools have been gaining traction in Michigan since their inception in the early 90s; however, nowhere has seen such rapid growth as New Orleans or Detroit. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Detroit ranks number two nationally for charter enrollment with over half-of the school aged students in the city attending a charter school in the 2012-13 school year. Given the popularity of the portfolio model, it was discouraging to see how few of the charter school teachers that night came in knowing who was running their schools.
I don’t blame them, though. For three years I too used to teach at a charter school in Detroit and for those three years I too was pretty clueless. Like many of the teachers I spoke with at the AFT meeting, I was so busy managing my classroom, grading assessments and getting to know my students that the idea of dissecting the administrative realm of the school was not only daunting but felt somewhat impossible. Exacerbating my understanding-gap was the fact that my district’s school board met monthly on a Tuesday at noon. Unless I wanted to request a sub for my classroom, it would be unimaginable to attend a board meeting and actually see the decision-making in real time. What’s more, our school’s board meeting minutes were never publicly posted; we were told they had to be approved by the school’s authorizer before being disseminated. This never happened.
All of the supposed barriers surrounding the governance of my school worked as a repellant. Instead of concentrating on my district’s school-wide decision-making, I zeroed in on the decisions I could control within my classroom. I created a “Be the Change” curriculum with my students to push for proactive, place-based learning. I got involved with Detroit Future Schools to help infuse the arts and media making in my daily lessons. I did everything I could to focus my attention on my students, still it was difficult to reconcile the fact that my homeroom raised $2,000 to create a mural on an abandoned building when our own classroom didn’t even have a pencil sharpener or tissues.
Seeing large amounts of money coming into the school via per-pupil-funding and Title I grants and yet the very obvious lack of resources within the classrooms, was difficult to turn a blind eye to. Compounding this issue was the fact that unlike the many states that require charter schools to be not-for-profit operations, Michigan has the highest proportion of for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs) running their schools. This bottom line coupled with a lack of accountability or transparency could leave space for the abuse of power and potential misallocation of funds within schools.
And so when I left my school last summer, I decided to send in as many Freedom of Information Act requests as possible to figure out where the money was being allocated and how the school was being run. The process was unnecessarily difficult, especially when done alone. This is because;
– I had to find out where to send the FOIA requests. Charter schools have authorizers, management companies and multiple campuses, so figuring out whom and where to address the FOIA to was often unclear.
– I had to figure out how to appropriately word the FOIA requests. While all charter contracts are technically public documents, they are for the most part difficult to get a hold of. Lawyers can make it more difficult by denying requests that are not specific enough so I had figure out exactly what I needed and how to word it appropriately.
–I had to familiarize myself with FOIA law. Understanding my rights and what I am entitled to was important when faced with negative responses.
While it may have been frustrating to navigate this process for the first time, what was far more upsetting was dealing with the stigma against teachers and parents sending in FOIAs.
Since charter schools rely on federal and state funding and are authorized by public bodies, it seems reasonable to expect transparency and accountability for how public funds are spent. This is especially the case since Michigan has more for-profit EMOs than any other state. However, since charter school boards are appointed by their authorizers and not elected by the public, I found much of the collective responsibility or ownership of the schools gets lost. Far too many parents and teachers are either unaware that they have the right to request contracts, budgets and board meeting minutes or are resigned to the fact that their voices will not be heard.
This is why Detroit Charter Data was created. The website, which is supported through an OpenGov Grant from the Sunlight Foundation, was designed to help the public navigate Detroit’s current schooling landscape by providing FOIA support and a database of documents received through the FOIA process.
Centered on a map of all of Detroit’s charter schools, Detroit Charter Data allows individuals to use the school map to find out information on a school of interest; Use the Freedom of Information Act generator to create a FOIA request to gather more information about a school; Browse the site to see what data has already been collected and use the discussion board to direct and coordinate further investigation.
The ultimate goal of the website is two pronged:
To keep charter schools and their authorizers accountable.
To encourage the public to take control of their experiences (i.e. schooling) and demand the data and decisions affecting their youth.
By so doing, the website will help eliminate any space for abuse of power and potential misallocation of funds within schools and bring more accountability and transparency to the Charter school system in Michigan.
Allison Gross is a freelance investigative journalist who developed detroitcharterdata.org — an open-source data website that provides information on charter schools in Detroit. Before that, Allison was a 5th grade teacher and a 2010 Teach for America corps member. When completed the site will act as both a contract database and a FOIA generator to help teachers, families and community stakeholders navigate where money and resources are going inside their schools. The overall goal is an accountability/transparency website created for and by the public. Detroitcharterdata.org is also a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov Grantee. You can reach Allision at her personal website allisongross.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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