Last month, Michigan received the dubious distinction of ranking dead last in the nation for state ethics and transparency laws. The State received an “F” based on the weaknesses of these laws and the systems in place to enforce them, which were collectively deemed “An honor system with no honor.”
Governor Synder’s spokesperson Sara Wurfel expressed surprise at Michigan’s last-place ranking and said many would be "hard pressed to find other elected officials who have implemented more transparency and accountability projects."
Surprise? This year has seen scandal after scandal rock Michigan’s education sector alone, including:
- Evidence that the governor’s flagship school reform district, the Education Achievement Authority (“EAA”), awarded a $1.7 million contract to a company ranked 8th out of 10 bidders, even though the bid was nearly twice that of the highest ranked bidder. The company—which has no other clients—is owned and operated by former employees of the NY City Department of Education, where EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme worked before coming to Michigan.
- News that the FBI is investigating corruption within the EAA, including allegations that district officials received kickbacks from vendors in exchange for contracts. One former EAA principal has reportedly already pled guilty to bribery and tax evasion for her role in the scandal.
- The federal prosecution of a charter school founder for bank fraud and tax evasion arising from allegations that he illegally diverted loans intended for school construction to his private account. This misconduct occurred under the “watchful” gaze of the school’s board, authorizer, and state Department of Education.
The ACLU of Michigan is playing its part to hold public entities entrusted with our children’s education accountable. For the past six months, we have been litigating against the EAA under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), to obtain documents concerning contracts that the district issued to Futures Education of Michigan (“Futures”).
The EAA reportedly paid the for-profit Futures as much as $2 million per year to provide students with special education services. Yet the district has yet to produce all the documents we seek about the implementation and results of these services. This battle—together with the increasing number of stories about corruption in Michigan’s education sector—indicates that our state’s “transparency and accountability projects” need serious overhaul.
But drawn-out litigation to obtain documents concerning the expenditure of public education funds should not be necessary. The State of Michigan can take proactive steps to root out and curtail corruption. Some of these steps enjoy broad support. For example, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommends that States ensure that charter schools fulfill their fundamental obligations to the public, including “sound governance, management, and stewardship of public funds; and public information and operational transparency in accordance with the law.”
In the Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy advise that state officials conduct “regular audits of charter schools’ finances to detect fraud, waste or abuse of public funds.” And of course, consistent and even-handed application of our state’s existing FOIA law to all public school districts, including those under emergency management and the EAA, would go a long way to increasing transparency in public education.
Until measures such as these are implemented, the ACLU of Michigan will continue its search to uncover mismanagement and profiteering in the education sector. But the toolbox for doing so in Michigan remains limited. The absence of strong ethics and transparency laws and state institutions that are willing to apply those laws should trouble Michiganders who seek to hold their officials accountable for malfeasance.
What last month’s study confirms is that the Michigan legislature is not equipping state government and those it serves with the means to ensure that the public trust—and purse—is not abused.