This article tells the story of Mary T. Wood, a woman in Michigan who has devoted nine years to tracking the spending and management of the state’s charter schools.

She is not a public official. No one pays her. She took on this mission when she enrolled her daughter in a charter school in 1999, which did not have approval of its building so spent the first month doing field trips and other outdoor activities. She began to wonder about the lack of oversight or supervision by the state. And she became a watchdog.

“For nearly a decade, the college-educated, stay-at-home, 54-year-old Warren mother of five has made it her life’s work to be a one-woman force of accountability for the state’s 230 charter schools, or “public school academies” as they’re officially called.

“And she’s forcing others to take note.

“The state board itself has taken a greater interest, really an interest, in looking at the details of charter school authorization and proliferation,” says Elizabeth Bauer, a member of the state board of education, who says she admires Wood. “She has definitely clarified those kinds of arrangements and brought them into a focus so people actually pay attention.”

“Michigan’s first 41 charter schools opened in 1995, and this fall there will be 232. About 6 percent of Michigan students attend a public school academy, which ranks Michigan fourth among states for the rate of charter school enrollment, according to the Michigan Department of Education.
Last year, enrollment topped 100,000, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies announced, with this year’s enrollment projected to grow.

“Michigan legislators this fall are expected to debate allowing a greater number of charters in Detroit as they refine laws related to schools.

“Test results are mixed, depending on varying interpretations of test scores. On the fall 2006 English and math MEAP for grades third through eighth, charter school students performed below the overall state average but better than the public school districts in which they were located.
According to state data, on the spring ACT this year, the average composite score for students at the 53 charter high schools throughout the state that reported them was 15.5, lower than the state average of 18.8 and a little higher than Detroit Public Schools’ average of 15.3. Just three of the 53 charter high schools outperformed Detroit’s top two high schools.

“But academic performance aside, Wood’s biggest concern about charter schools, in a nutshell, is that there is not enough oversight of the public money spent on these schools; there’s a general lack of accountability throughout the system.

“Unfortunately, this issue is politically based, and people are positioned in key places to permit improprieties to happen on a regular basis because I am certain that they believe nobody would know the difference,” she says.”

Nearly 20 years of experience with charter schools, which–according to the Detroit Free Press–collect $1 billion in public revenues, and the state still does not supervise them. Any attempt to do so is quickly stymied by lobbyists an campaign contributions to key legislators.