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Public school debate

In February of 2015, the Michigan Press Association named Jennifer Dixon of The Detroit Free Press “journalist of the year” for her eight-part series exposing the one billion dollars in Michigan public school funds that found their way to “for profit” charter schools.

Public education advocates and Democrats cheered. Dixon’s reporting confirmed their claim that various forms of (Republican/Devos) “privatization” schemes – especially for profit charters – had been responsible for the decline of Michigan schools. As progressive champion Dr. Abdul El-Sayed tweeted recently (Dec. 8), “Private interests have no place in public education.” But in 2015, Michigan public schools engaged in a very significant privatization effort of their own – in China.

Bloomfield Hills Okma International Academy (IA), routinely rated the “top” public school in Michigan, partnered with a Chinese American “investor,” Michael Liu, to create a private school in Quingdao, China. This privatization scheme did not garner attention from either public education or the privatization proponents in Lansing. That is a critical oversight.

Americans lose their minds about the academic performance of Asian Americans relative to their white or black ethnic counterparts here; but, and this may surprise some, middle class Chinese parents are clamoring for Anglo-American style schooling. According to Forbes (March, 2018), “The central government of China is also encouraging private investment in the education industry in order to improve efficiency…Total revenue generated in the private education industry has been increasing from 124.1 billion yuan (or $19.7 billion) in 2012 and is expected to reach 325.5 billion yuan ($51.7 billion) in 2020, representing a compound annual growth rate of approximately 12.1 per cent.” That’s big business, even for those supposedly committed to “public” education.

Indeed, Michigan’s one billion for private charters over many years is, in this context, chump change. Intriguingly, when Liu responded to this market demand he did not seek out Devos-style Republicans. Rather, he found former State Superintendent Tom Watkins. Watkins went right to Lambert (Bert) Okma, the founding, but now retired, principal of the public school that bears his name in Bloomfield Hills.

Hard times had come even to Bloomfield Hills, resulting in assorted school closures and classroom consolidations. But Okma and his partners in public schools, including his wife, Lynne Gibson, the current principal of the Okma IA, saw a chance to grow classrooms – albeit, again, in China rather than their home district. The IA had done so well in internet rankings that, along with its consortium partners (Bloomfield, Birmingham, Troy, Rochester, etc.), could “sell” their schooling – and some seats here – to Chinese families. As many charters here discovered, however, setting up schools without the massive historical investment of American public machinery, is hard. Quingdao IA failed miserably, hurting students, parents and ill-advised teachers. Charter school critics know these endings very well. But, again, this privatization “fail” comes not from outside the public schools, but within. To be fair, the Okma/Gibson set up is somewhat distinctive. They are not governed by a single local school board, though Bloomfield Hills is the “fiscal agent;” so there is little public accountability. But the “consortium” public school districts that sustain the IA seem to fully accept this kind of use of public resources for private interests.

They provided, for example, the “Quality Assurance Team” that gave unofficial sanction to the failed school. Okma and Gibson hid nothing, although not all involved knew they were married. At worst, they “hid” in plain sight, under the loose governing structure of the IA called the “joint steering committee” (created in 1993) which does not see itself as subject to the Open Meetings Act or the Freedom of Information Act. According to Bloomfield Hills Schools, who are amending the consortium agreement to make sure this autonomy is preserved, the IA is like a “committee” or “sub-committee” and so free to act outside the public eye.

But the larger question remains: if public schools at the top of the Michigan education food chain no longer accept Dr. El-Sayed’s cry from the heart that “Private interests have no place in public education,” then who does?

325.5 billion is a lot of yuan for MI public school administrators to ponder.

Ken Jackson

Bloomfield Hills

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