If Michigan is to become a top ten state for education, it needs a high-performing charter sector. The charter sector is far too important for all students— particularly for African American and low-income students— to not address the lack of charter sector accountability.
We recommend a new approach to charter school authorizing in Michigan, one that makes authorizing a privilege that must be earned and maintained through consistent high performance with a focus on student outcomes. Student learning matters in the lives of children; student learning outcomes need to matter for Michigan school authorizers, too.
The recommendations outlined below would provide a comprehensive framework for charter sector accountability— and over time, dramatically higher-achieving charter
schools—that many Michigan students desperately need and surely deserve.
There’s no need for Michigan to wait for legislation to act on some of the levers outlined below, though new policies and laws will be needed to make clear the state has the authority to raise the quality of the charter sector overall, including closing chronically low-performing authorizers. Today, the state superintendent can use his existing authority to suspend authorizers that do not meet the following performance standards—and he should act swiftly on behalf of Michigan students and families.
The passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015 establishes a new framework for school and district accountability nationwide. In the future, we recommend incorporating the additional accountability requirements of ESSA into Michigan’s performance-based charter accountability system. For more information on ESSA, please visit: edtrust.org/the-every-student-succeeds-actof-2015/
1. AUTHORIZER RESET: REQUIRE ALL EXISTING AND NEW AUTHORIZERS TO COMPLETE A RIGOROUS APPLICATION PROCESS PRIOR TO BECOMING—OR REMAINING—AN AUTHORIZER
Currently, Michigan public universities, colleges and school districts can automatically become authorizers—with no criteria determining whether or not a potential authorizer has the capacity, expertise or experience to take on this responsibility. And once an institution becomes an authorizer, the state superintendent and governor are unable to revoke this authority, according to interpretations of current state law.¹ This explains, in part, why Michigan currently has roughly forty authorizers, with the potential for new authorizers every year. There’s also no formal evaluation of authorizers, nor even a requirement that authorizers issue an annual report of their schools’ performance in Michigan.² Unfortunately, this approach has come at the detriment of the state’s most impoverished students—the ones most in need of high-quality schools.
We propose a process where all new and current authorizers would need to apply to the state superintendent in order to gain or retain full authorizing authority. This would replicate a similar strategy used in Minnesota. After becoming the first state nationwide to allow charter schools, Minnesota found that some authorizers simply lacked the capacity to adequately fulfill their responsibilities. The state decided to hit the “reset” button, requiring all current and potential new authorizers to complete a formal application to gain or retain authorizing authority. This rigorous authorizer application process was so stringent, many existing authorizers simply did not apply.
We recommend Michigan adopt a similar strategy. Specific elements of the authorizer application should include:
- Documented evidence of an authorizer’s experience and their schools’ academic performance (as applicable), including the schools that have met or missed academic performance standards and goals.
- The authorizer’s capacity to oversee and open high- performing charter schools. This includes charter authorizer office personnel qualifications and responsibilities, with documentation of financial resources dedicated to supporting strong authorizing practices.
- A description of the authorizer’s process and decision- making for granting new charter school contracts, including performance standards that meet or exceed state minimum standards.
- The authorizer’s model for providing support and oversight to each charter school, and enumerated consequences and intervention procedures for schools that fail to meet academic expectations.
- A comprehensive process for charter school contract renewal and termination decisions, based on academic and financial expectations, goals and state minimum quality standards.
- A commitment to not engage in “authorizer shopping.” Authorizer shopping is when a charter school “shops” between authorizers, normally to find the authorizer with the lowest academic requirements to open a charter school.
- MCL §380.502
- “EDCAPS – G5-Technical Review Form (New),” United States Department of Education, 2015. http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/Peer_Review_Scores_and_2015_Entire_Final_CSP_Grant_Submission_1_501801_7.pdf
In Massachusetts, all potential charter schools undergo a rigorous application process, covering everything from instructional models and teacher qualifications to student
retention plans and parent involvement strategies.¹
In contrast, Michigan charter contracts have very few consistent requirements, including no minimum academic performance bar for openings, renewals or expansions of
schools. Indeed, Michigan is out of step with many states in terms of its authorizer practices. According to research conducted by the National Association of Charter School
Authorizers (NACSA), several states require minimum performance frameworks prior to opening—ensuring quality outcomes for students. States with such policies include:
Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts and several others.²
In determining this minimum quality bar for opening, expanding or renewing a charter school contract, we must begin with charter school operators—the very entities
responsible for running charter schools.
Before any operator can open a charter school in Michigan, we propose that they undergo a check for academic quality. In doing so, operators with clear records of underperformance are prevented from opening or expanding. The Michigan Department of Education would be responsible for maintaining a list of operators that meet minimum quality standards. Current operators that demonstrate evidence of failure should no longer operate in Michigan, and should be phased out and replaced by high-performing operators over time.
To allow for innovation, new operators with no track record would need to meet a different standard, at least temporarily. Likewise, operators seeking to open their first schools nationwide would still have the ability to do so in Michigan. That is, they would not need to meet minimum quality standards until sufficient data exists for their schools. However, these operators must still provide evidence that they have the capacity, resources and tools to successfully run charter schools in Michigan.
In addition to minimum academic standards for operators and to ensure all new charter schools in the state are of the highest caliber, we recommend the following be included in the application forms for all new charter school openings:
- A detailed curriculum and commitment to high standards;
- Specific course offerings and descriptions;
- Proposed instructional models, including research supporting effectiveness of such models;
- Qualifications for all school leaders and teachers;
- The strategy for teacher professional development, evaluation and professional learning; and
- The strategy for parent outreach and engagement.
We also propose that initial charter school contracts be no longer than three years, not 10 years like some Michigan charters.³ Ten years is simply too long for a school to underperform. However, schools able to meet minimum quality standards in the first couple of years may receive an extension for one to two years.
Charter authorizers must require the following for all charter school renewals or expansions:
Contract renewals can be up to five years, as long as the charter school is performing in the top half of the state’s accountability system at the time of renewal.
- Charter districts seeking to expand to new grade levels or buildings must apply the same standards as for new schools. For example, a district with only a charter middle school seeking to open a high school must demonstrate it has the capacity and resources to open a new school within the district.
- MGL ch.71 §89
- “On the Road to Better Accessibility, Autonomy and Accountability,” National Association of Charter School Authorizers, 2015. http://www.qualitycharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/NACSA_State_Policy_Analysis_2015.pdf
- Data provided by the Michigan Department of Education Public School Academy Unit.
Authorizers are the gatekeepers of charter schools in Michigan. Any real system of accountability for the sector must include them. We recommend a performance-based system that would reward high-performing authorizers for their strong performance, while chronically low-performing authorizers would face consequences if they did not improve their portfolio’s student outcomes. While scrutiny around poor decision-making is an important deterrent, authorizers also should have incentives for making good decisions.
The authority to authorize would be earned and maintained annually based on performance for student learning, rated by letter grades. Authorizers with grades of “C” or below would need to eventually improve to at least a “B,” or face suspension or revocation of their authority.
To understand our performance framework, we provide definitions for specific rewards and consequences:
Authorizer Additional Funding: Charter authorizers would receive 0.5 percent in additional school aid funding. These dollars would only be allowed for educator professional development or for facilities expansion for operators meeting the minimum performance standard. The additional 0.5 percent of state dollars would serve to reward top-performing authorizers, while also incentivizing lower-performing authorizers to improve. To note, additional funding would only apply to “A” authorizers.
Authorizer Suspension: Under suspension, authorizers would be prohibited from opening any new schools, but may continue to oversee their current portfolio of
schools. The only exception would be for expanding grade levels or locations for charter schools already ranked in the top half of the state’s accountability system.
Authorizer Revocation: Revocation would dissolve an authorizer’s authority to open or oversee current or future schools. Charter schools previously under a revoked authorizer would be overseen by the state superintendent or governor, where it would have one year to transfer to an “A” or “B” authorizer. Charter schools unable to find a new authorizer after this period would be subject to closure, per the state superintendent or governor’s discretion.
Transparency is key to holding public charter schools, authorizers and operators accountable. This will ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent in ways that best benefit students. Michigan has unique challenges to transparency, as our state leads the country in for-profit operators—some of which don’t always provide the public with transparent or accessible information. In other words, at times it is unclear whether public taxpayer dollars are going toward buying new school books, paying teacher salaries or paying operator CEO salaries.¹
In contrast, Massachusetts requires reporting on expenditures and revenues for each school, including whether or not these sources were private or public. The state also requires reporting on how surplus dollars are spent in subsequent years.² We recommend the following to better inform the public on how public dollars are being spent. Information must also be accessible and consistent across authorizers, including:
- All records relating to charter school authorization, including financial agreements and academic performance.
- Actual charter contracts and materials shared between charter school authorizers and their schools, their timeline and guidelines for charter school approvals, and the list of charter schools and their operators seeking authorization or reauthorization. This should include both schools that have been approved to open and those that were denied, including the reasons for denial.
- All records related to real estate transactions and property. According to an investigation by the Detroit Free Press in 2014, lease agreements between charter operators and their schools have become a growing source of profit for some operators.
- The profit status of each operator including profit margins based on revenues and expenses. This should include salary and other relevant financial information. There should also be a common definition of “profit” throughout the state for all public schools and a requirement that all operators report this information annually. Potential conflicts of interest with authorizers or school board members must also be documented.
- Authorizers must post notice of a new charter school opening or expansion at least three months before approving the new school or expansion. This should include the school’s location, grade levels, other school sites in Michigan and operator.
Bruce Baker and Gary Miron, “The Business of Charter Schooling: Understanding the Policies that Charter Operators Use for Financial Benefit,” National Education Policy Center, 2015. http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/rb_baker-miron_charter_revenue_0.pdf
MGL ch.71 §89
The statewide system we propose would greatly improve the quality of the charter sector in the state. But in certain communities in our state, this system may simply not suffice where children are especially vulnerable, school systems are especially weal< and the uncoordinated marketplace of many low-performing charters threatens the quality of both traditional schools and high-performing charters- not to mention the future of children themselves. Given these unique circumstances, we call for an additional complementary lever of accountability, where a local authority can provide for greater coordination and oversight based on local neighborhoods’ needs.
Detroit is a case in point. Detroit’s traditional school system is already severely underperforming, while many of its charter schools are performing about the same or even worse than the district. Its need for high-quality schools is dire. In communities like Detroit, a local body should have additional authority and responsibilities. The
Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren has also highlighted the need for such an oversight body:¹
- Overseeing the openings, closings and expansions of schools in the community (both charter and traditional) to ensure all students have access to quality educational opportunities.
- Coordinating data, enrollment, transportation and other services throughout the community’s educational system.
- Enforcing minimum quality standards for charter school operators. Given the need for quality schools in these communities, this may go above and beyond the minimum operator standards of the state. School operators would need to be approved by the local body before going to a charter authorizer to apply to open or expand in such communities.
- Only “A:’ or “B” authorizers could open new schools, to ensure state and local accountability systems would be coordinated and coherent.
Only communities that meet specific criteria would fall under these provisions. Criteria could include high-poverty communities where a very large percentage of the school-age population attends charter schools. For example, according to research from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, both Detroit and Flint in 2013-14 are near the top of the country for their share of charter student enrollment, and Grand Rapids rounds out the top 10.²