In 2012 Muskegon Heights became the country's first fully privatized school district when it was handed over to a charter company by its emergency manager. The charter company's tenure running the school system had been plagued with scandal but this week the charter company called it quits for a reason which had nothing to do with education - it wasn't making any money.
As the new Snyder administration slashed K-12 funding the Muskegon Heights Public School District was hit badly and driven into emergency management. Governor Snyder's appointee to run the district, Donald Weatherspoon, decided he would take the drastic step of firing every district employee and turning the entire system over to Mosaica Education, a charter company. Michigan Radio, July 17, 2012.
This meant the people of Muskegon Heights would no longer have local democratic control of their schools. It also meant reduced pay for teachers (base pay of $35,000 per year), and planned student teacher ratios of 25:1. Also, tax payers would continue to pay on the debt incurred by the public schools while the new charter district took the state aid and operated without the burden of the debt. But the promise was the school's financial situation would be stabilized.
In the months that followed the charter district was chaotic. Mosaica had trouble opening and cancelled homecoming activities. Michigan Radio, September 18, 2012. Of the 80 teachers the Mosaica hired, 20 quit in the first three months.
“It’s confusing because I go from this learning process to this learning process to that learning process and it’s just ridiculous how some teachers leave and we have to start all over and learn something new,” Muskegon Heights High School senior Tony Harris said, “It’s just, it’s crazy.” [Michigan Radio, December 2, 2012]Veteran teachers cited reasons such as lack of clear discipline policy, work expectations and the right supplies to teach students with poor reading skills played a big part in why they left. The High School also went through three principles in six months. Michigan Radio, February 7, 2013.
The charter company's answer to the shortage was not to improve conditions, or increase pay, or offer additional professional development, or reduce class sizes, but to hire uncertified teachers. An investigation by Michigan Radio revealed that 10 percent of the charter district's teachers were not certified. Michigan Radio, February 12, 2013.
Mosaica Education Chief Executive Officer Mike Connelly says the company hired some teachers who weren’t certified yet. But he says the company verified the teachers were eligible for certification. He says Mosaica expected those teachers to then obtain proper certifications from Michigan’s Department of Education. “The process of getting certified can only be done by the teacher themselves,” Connelly noted.
“When we contact Michigan Department of Education and they say ‘pending approval,’ those are the type of things that we had these teachers notified, that if you can’t prove certification that you will no longer be able to work,” Zachery-Ross said. [Id.]But as Michigan Radio pointed out, the law requires teachers to obtain certification before they begin teaching.
The charter district and Mosaica also failed to comply with federal law in providing special education. Social workers were not provided as required by law. Further,
It wasn’t just social workers that Muskegon Heights was missing. A different report from a separate complaint says special education students were not given speech and language, physical therapy, mobility and other services. It says teachers didn’t get help they needed for kids with autism, or with visual and hearing impairments. Students also lacked instructional materials they needed to make progress under Michigan’s Merit Curriculum. [Michigan Radio, May 23, 2013]But neither the breaches in Michigan's teacher certification requirements nor the breaches of federal law prompted the radical state intervention that losing money had, and Mosaica continued operating the district.
However, when Mosaica didn't make any money, that was the end of it. "To be brutally honest - they had to be brutally honest to themselves as well with us - in their model as a for profit company, their profit was not there," Weatherspoon told Michigan Radio.
Now, the tax payers will borrow another $1.4 million from the state to pay off Mosaica. The state will lend the money to the old public school district, now just a shell that money flows through to the charter district. The old public school district will keep the debt, and taxpayers will pay it off eventually. The cash will flow through the charter district to Mosaica.
The charter district plans to hire a new charter company to operate the school next year:
“We want to make sure that we get it right. And we certainly want to make sure that we have an operator with the experience that is needed to manage the culture that exists in our community today," charter board President Arthur Scott said. [Michigan Radio, April 26, 2014]There does not appear to be any discussion about handing the district back to is people via local control.