Two charter school companies vie for Muskegon Heights schools

By the end of this week, Muskegon Heights Public Schools Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon will have sold the entire school district to one of two for-profit charter school management companies—Leona Group or Mosaica Education. It’s an unprecedented move to eliminate the district’s $12.4 million debt and it signals the end to traditional public education for more than 1,400 students in Muskegon Heights.

The current school district would no longer exist, but would still have to pay off the debt using its local millage, a 3 percent fee from the charter school company, rent from its buildings and whatever other means the state Department of Education and Treasury approve. The charter school would be in charge of educating children and receive the district’s $7,397 per-pupil funding, but the school district would oversee the operations of the charter school company.

The 85 district teachers had a contract with the district through Aug. 2013, but last month Weatherspoon laid off the teachers and cut off their health benefits effective June 30. The union sued and the teachers will have benefits until the end of Aug. Weatherspoon has said the teachers can apply to the new charter operator, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be hired or even given consideration. The Leona Group has said it would probably hire the teachers since they’re “highly qualified, very competent and very capable,” but that may just be an empty promise to get the contract.

Whichever company is awarded the bid, neither one has an outstanding record.

The Leona Group, founded in 1996, is based in Phoenix and operates 61 schools across the country—19 in Michigan. The instructional spending per Leona pupil is $3,811. Mosaica Education operates six schools in Michigan and is based in New York. It manages a total of 33 schools and one school district. It was founded in 1997 and spends $3,683 per pupil.

According to Gary Miron, Western Michigan University professor and a nationally-recognized authority on charter schools, students in these two charter systems don’t fare any better than those in traditional public schools. In his Jan. 2012 report for the National Education Policy Center—“Profiles of For-Profit and Nonprofit Education Management Organizations”— 54.4 percent of Leona Group students made AYP, while only 50 percent of Mosaica Education students did. For the 2010-11 school year, 52 percent of all public schools—traditional and charter—made AYP

The state also ranks charter schools on a top-to-bottom list—from 1 to 99—based primarily on test scores. Only one charter school from among the two companies is ranked above the 50th percentile; 19 are ranked below the 30th percentile; 14 are ranked below the 20th percentile. Miron blames a lack of state oversight for the rankings. While both charter school management companies claim student performance is improving, neither group has any research or data to support its claims.

All of Weatherspoon’s plans are still not a done deal if the repeal of Public Act 4—the Emergency Manager law—makes it to the Nov. ballot and voters approve the referendum. Meanwhile, students, staff and the community have their local school district pulled out from under them.