Bringing failing charter schools to heel
Detroit Free Press
Gov. Snyder and would-be education reformers in both parties talk ad nauseum about holding allMichigan’s schools accountable. But charter schools, which now serve 145,000 K-12 students in Michigan and vacuum up more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds – remain maddeningly insulated from public scrutiny.
When state legislators opened the floodgates to charter schools a generation ago, the charter movement’s champions pledged that non-profit and for-profit operators freed from the yoke of teachers unions and meddling bureaucrats would dramatically improve educational outcomes for students, especially in impoverished cities, such as Detroit and Flint, where the failure of traditional public schools was manifest in low academic achievement and high dropout rates.
In some states – notably Massachusetts, where demanding standards and strict oversight have fostered charters that regularly out-perform that state’s exemplary public school s – the charter movement has been as good as its word.
But in Michigan, many charters cannot even clear the low bar set by the state’s most challenged traditional schools. In a survey conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, eight in 10 Michigan charter schools reported academic achievement metrics below the state average in reading and math.
In its second annual report card assessing the performance of Michigan’s burgeoning charter sector, Education Trust – Midwest sees some evidence that increased scrutiny by the media and non-profit community has yielded modest improvements in the performance of 16 charter authorizers whose schools serve 95% of the state’s charter students. Eastern Michigan University and Oakland University, which ranked near the bottom in ETM’s initial assessment a year ago, were among authorizers who reacted by closing failing charter schools and raising standards for new ones.
Michigan’s lackadaisical oversight has made the state especially attractive to for-profit charter operators, who now run more than three-fourths of the state’s charter schools. Their proliferation has spawned an unvirtuous cycle in which unregulated operators use taxpayer dollars to buy political influence that shields them from unwanted scrutiny. If the cycle is not interrupted, for-profit charter operators will remain perpetually a step ahead of would-be regulators, much as tobacco manufacturers did for decades.
ETM’s latest report card explicitly outlines the clear path to improved charter performance: Rigorous performance standards for operators and the authorizers who oversee them, with transparent oversight by public authorities who are accountable to parents and taxpayers and empowered to suspend authorizers and operators who fail to meet those standards. That is why any blueprint for a reinvigorated K-12 system in Detroit must include a single commission to which both traditional schools and charters are responsible.
It is incumbent upon state legislators to enact such standards and the means to enforce them. Those who dither in defense of the status quo will reap justifiable condemnation as captives of an industry that is profiting at the expense of the Michigan schoolchildren it purports to serve.
In the meantime, state Superintendent Brian Whiston must aggressively use his authority to suspend authorizers that continue to open charter schools that underperform academically and squander taxpayer dollars. Without such leadership, the charter movement bids to become just another entry in the growing list of adult institutions that have broken their promises to Michigan’s children.