Over the past two summers, as the 482Forward Policy interns, we were tasked with creating a visual tool that shows the lines of authority from the State of Michigan all the way down to individual charter and traditional schools. When we started, we assumed that this type of information would be readily available to Detroit parents, but that was simply not the case. Information from the state level down to the charter management organizations (CMO) was relatively easy to find. But when we began to search for the names of school board members and how to contact them, we encountered many barriers.
There are hundreds of charter and traditional schools in Detroit. Because charter schools are decentralized into 59 districts, there is no centralized, easily accessible source to find their board members. Instead, you have to search the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), since each charter school is legally incorporated as a non-profit corporation. This is an arduous task that requires navigating a complicated website and uncovering annual reports. (As an aside, the information about which management company charter schools have hired - that’s the organization that often runs the day-to-day operations of the school - is in an entirely different, but equally non-user-friendly online database maintained by the Department of Education.)
We then called every authorizer that operates a school in Detroit and only two of them had a single source document of all their schools and their board members. Two authorizers told us we had to receive approval from the director and then we would be sent a report. One of those authorizers said they would not have that information made available until late fall.
This complicated and opaque process violates the democratic principle of transparency in public schools. That lack of transparency makes it so that charter schools can make operating decisions that they will not be held accountable for. Charter schools are public entities and information about who runs them should be public. If this information is kept in the dark, parents will not have the tools they need to advocate for their children’s future.
As they say, sunlight is a wonderful disinfectant. An important step to improving our schools is improving transparency. That is why we need to advocate for authorizers to have complete, public lists of board members for all of their charter schools and a simple method of contact. Parents should not have to jump through hoops to access this basic information. Only by increasing access for meaningful parent and community voice can we make Detroit schools better for all children.