Envision a local public school that misappropriates federal grant monies, posts abysmal MEAP scores and carries an operating deficit on its books. After eight years, the state finally shuts it down. Accountability to this extent never happens, of course, in conventional public schools in which problems like the above often constitute business as usual. But not so for Walter French Academy, in East Lansing, Michigan, which on June 30th, became the fifteenth charter school in Michigan to be shut down by its authorizer since 1993 — and rightly so.

In a letter to Walter French Academy’s board president dated 5/27/04 from the academy’s authorizer, the Charter Schools Office of Central Michigan University, the academy was informed that their contract — the legal charter to operate from which charter schools derive the name — would not be renewed. Justification for CMU’s decision was ample:

  • "deficit operating fund balances for six consecutive years ... [standing at] $605,086" at the close of the 2003 fiscal year

  • "meetings [which] appear to have violated portions of the Open Meetings Act," and

  • "a poorly implemented educational program"

In addition to "these actions [which] demonstrate a consistent pattern of the Academy Board’s lack of governance and leadership ..." was a finding by the Michigan Department of Education in February of 2004 that the academy spent $135,443 in federal monies on building repairs that were not part of the proposal which secured the grant. Amidst these — and a veritable plethora of other problems — the CMU Charter School Office did what a government entity should do with a failing school; it cut-off the flow of taxpayer dollars.

While Jim Goenner, Executive Director of the Charter Schools Office at CMU, says the decision to close the school was "heartbreaking," he regards CMU’s decision as "... a victory for the charter school movement because it fulfills the promise." The promise that Goenner refers to is that charter schools were created on the idea that "performance will be rewarded and poor performance will be sanctioned." The ultimate sanction is to prevent the school from receiving public funds which Goenner states simply as "accountability in action."

Nevertheless, many conventional public schools across the state produce equally dismal performances but the sanction of closure appears to be nowhere imminent. Detroit Public Schools district, for example, is practically legend for its inability to account for money as previously reported by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. And despite "well above-average operating expenditures" of $9,532 per student according to Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services, a data analysis company contracted by the state of Michigan, the district had a 30 percent passing rate on the 2002 MEAP and a graduation rate of 69 percent. Yet the state’s largest school district continues to receive state aid uninterrupted and with little competition.

In fact, whenever the possibility of competition arises, as it did last fall when legislation to allow a private philanthropist, Robert Thompson, to open fifteen charter high schools in Detroit made it to the governor’s desk, the Detroit Federation of Teachers thwarted the measure through union strongarm tactics. Their actions demonstrated once again that if the public school union establishment resists anything more than real accountability measures — like the kind faced by Walter French Academy — it is competition that they oppose the most. Especially feared is competition from charter schools, which the establishment is disingenuously prone to claim have no accountability.

Detroit, of course, is not alone in this slough. The Oakland ISD scandal, which ripped off taxpayers to the tune of millions of dollars, is another example of insufficient accountability in public schools. Most recently, officials from the Clintondale Community Schools and East Detroit Public Schools districts have admitted to fraud in accepting kickbacks from the owner of Hudson Construction, William J. Hudson, Jr. According to the Detroit News, "a total of 20 people have been indicted in the scandal, including three former school superintendents and three school board members ..." The list of failing schools and financial mismanagement could go on.

Should public schools that abuse the taxpayer’s confidence be allowed to continue? The answer appears to depend on which public schools are in question. For Walter French Academy and other charter school closures which preceded it, the answer is no. If the schools are Clintondale, East Detroit, Detroit or Oakland ISD, the answer is yes. The question policy makers and citizens should be contemplating is "when will conventional public schools be as accountable as charter schools?"

Brian L. Carpenter is director of leadership development at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.