Ulbrich: Some charter authorizers are ‘cashing in and making tons of money’

By: - February 12, 2019 4:18 pm

Casandra Ulbrich

The State Board of Education has hit the ground running this year, launching a search for a new state superintendent of public instruction and hiring Ray & Associates.

Sheila Alles

Interim leader Sheila Alles, who had served as chief deputy superintendent, replaced the late Brian Whiston, who died last year after a bout with cancer.   

In November, Democrats won a 6-2 majority on the board after Tiffany Tilley of Southfield and Judith Pritchett of Washington Township. scored wins over Republicans Richard Zeile and Tami Carlone.

On Jan. 9, the board chose Casandra Ulbrich as its chair. Ulbrich, a Democrat from Rochester Hills, had been co-president for the last two years under a shared-power agreement with Zeile when the board consisted of four Democrats and four Republicans. She was first elected in 2006.  

Ulbrich serves as the vice president for College Advancement and Community Relations at Macomb Community College. She’s earned a doctorate and a master’s degree from Wayne State University, a bachelor’s degree from University of Michigan, and an associate’s degree from St. Clair County Community College.

She recently spoke with the Advance about problems with charter school authorizers, as well as what other states get right about charters.

And Ulbrich discussed being one of so many women in executive positions in Michigan government, as well as how the board is handling accusations from conservatives about “bias” in the social studies curriculum.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: We’ve made history in Michigan with women in the positions of governor, attorney general, secretary of state, Supreme Court chief judge, and now chair of the State Board of Education all at the same time. Is that significant?

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking at her inauguration at the Capitol, Jan. 1, 2019 | Nick Manes

Ulbrich: Absolutely! I think that is very significant here in the state of Michigan and I’m really excited about what’s coming in our near future.

Michigan Advance: Your body is carrying out a process to select a new state superintendent of schools. How is that process doing?

Ulbrich: It’s going well. We’ve hired a search firm and we are publicly accepting applications. We’ll be accepting them until March 11 and, at which time, we will select a group of finalists. All of the interviews will be public meetings, so everybody will be able to see who the finalists are and hear what they have to say. We anticipate doing the interviews in April and hoping to have someone who can start on July 1.

Michigan Advance: What’s the status of the social studies curriculum standards issue of last fall where [former] state Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton) argued there was bias in the process?

Ulbrich: So we pulled together a new group that was charged with looking at various issues involved in the social studies standards and a group that is focused on bias and making sure that bias is somehow not written into the standards. They have wrapped up their work and believe that they are in the process of updating the standards. That will come back to the board sometime this year.

Michigan Advance: There are people who believe that state government, the Legislature, governor and Michigan Department of Education have turned a blind eye when it comes to accountability and oversight and charter schools. Do you agree with that assessment?

Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a charter school, enjoys strong student standardized test scores. | Ken Coleman photo

Ulbrich: I would. When the state of Michigan first enacted the charter school law 25 years ago, they specifically wrote it to be very unrestrictive and with as little public oversight as possible. Twenty-five years later, we are seeing the results of that. And because this has become such a politicized conversation, we really can’t have an honest debate about what makes the most sense.

Policy-wise, it turns into a sort of accusatory nature of a conversation: ‘You don’t want choice. You just want the status quo.’ And as a result, nothing gets changed. In fact, now [the law] is even more unrestrictive and not less. There really hasn’t been a whole lot of transparency when it comes to these schools.

The part that I think is so frustrating is that communities have no say. If a charter operator wants to open a school in your backyard, there is very little that you can do about it. The charter school isn’t going to have a publicly elected board and chances are the authorizer doesn’t have publicly elected board, either. So you really have very little recourse to have any say or impact whatsoever.

Rick Snyder

Michigan Advance: Former Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature lifted the cap on charters in 2011. Do you believe that there should be a cap on charter schools?

Ulbrich: No. 1, you have to hold the authorizers accountable. That’s an area where we’re lacking. Some authorizers do a really good job of overseeing the schools that they have. Others are literally just cashing in and making tons of money off these schools. And they did get 3 percent of the foundation allowance from every student, so when we removed the cap, we removed any incentive to ensure that only the best are open.

Quality control has basically been diminished as a result of this. At least before, there was a cap so if there were underperforming school, [authorizers] would close those and just open new ones. Now, where is the incentive to close a school when you can just open as many as you want?

Michigan Advance: What are other states doing to create charter school accountability?

Ulbrich: Very few states have the type of system that we have. Some states don’t allow for-profit charter schools at all. New York has a moratorium on for-profit charter schools when they realized that they were paying excessive leases.

Massachusetts has one authorizer: the state of Massachusetts. So the state board of education is responsible for saying, ‘OK, we’re going to open a charter school and make sure that there is actually a need for a charter school in conjunction with what the community is looking for.’ There aren’t many states that have so many authorizer types and with so many governing structures.

Michigan Advance: The State Board of Education used to deliver the state Legislature, by request, an annual report of status of charter schools. That ended several years ago. Why?

Ulbrich: When the Legislature removed the cap on charter schools in 2011, it removed that language from the bill. We have not had an annual report since 2010. I think that results from those reports … were [not] the type of results that they want to see. One of the results from our last report showed the 50 percent of charter schools were in the bottom 25 percent of all public schools in the state of Michigan.

Michigan Advance: If there is an un-level playing between traditional public schools and charter school when it comes to enrolling and educating children who have special needs?

Ulbrich: Charter schools will point to a percentage of children with special needs and say, ‘Look, we are almost at the same percentage as tradition schools, so it’s not fair to say that we are not educating children with special needs.’ But that’s only part of the story.

The other part that you have to look at is the needs of the kids. I would argue that in charter schools [kids] my have an IEP [Individual Education Plan], but it might not be someone who is severely cognitively impaired as you might see in a traditional school. We know that it takes a lot of resources to support those kids.

I can’t tell you how many parents and grandparents tell me that a charter school has told them that, ‘We don’t have the services for your kids. You’ll be much better served finding another school.’ It’s illegal! You are supposed to be a public school. You are supposed to take everybody.

Michigan Advance: What can your body to do create a more balanced playing field between traditional public schools and charter schools?

Ulbrich: Early in the Snyder administration, we offered a number of recommendations. At one point, I sat down with Gov. Snyder early in his tenure. It was literally the only time that I had a meeting with him. Some of the things that we recommended were don’t lift the cap on charter schools, but if you do, put quality controls.

… The other that we said was if the [charter school authorizer] has a sweep contract — meaning that you control the entire budget of the school and all of the employees are your employees, you should not get to lease yourself your own building at three times the market rate. Those are the types of things, from a transparency perspective, are easy fixes.

We have some management companies that have literally built empires off public tax dollars and the public has no right to those buildings if they were to close or they decide to do something else with them. Those are the type of things that we’ve tried to argue in the past.  

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.