Guest commentary

Charter school bill should add protections for quality

By Amber Arellano/Education Trust-Midwest

The Oakland Academy in Portage has fulfilled much of the bold promise of the Michigan charter school movement. The elementary school, run by the nonprofit Foundation for Behavioral Resources, routinely exceeds state averages in math and reading.

But in the northeast corner of Michigan, a more troubling portrait of charter quality emerges. Students at Alpena’s Bingham Arts Academy are mostly poor and white. The school ranks in the bottom 13 percent in student performance – well below even other low-income schools.

Bingham is run by Mosaica Schools, an out-of-state charter operator approved to run more charters this fall despite a troubling record in Michigan. Five of its six schools were ranked in the bottom 33 percent of public schools last year. Two Mosaica schools were closed amid concerns about their “academic and financial viability,” state records show.

Mosaica is among several operators running new charters this year even though their existing schools struggle. This is hardly surprising, given that Michigan is permitting more charters to open, but does not impose quality standards on operators to expand.

Charter status is no guarantee

The Michigan charter movement was founded in the 1990s on the premise that charters would provide a quality option to traditional public schools. Its leaders heralded charters as laboratories where talented educators would show traditional schools how to innovate, spurring academic gains in schools that had failed low-income children for generations.

But the state’s reluctance to demand quality has led to charter schools of uneven performance.

The Education Trust-Midwest examined the quality of charter operators behind the schools that opened this fall, using the state’s Top-to-Bottom list of school rankings, which considers factors such as student growth. For each operator, we reviewed whether at least half of their existing schools ranked at or above the 33rd percentile of public schools – this being roughly the average for low-income students.

Why set such a modest bar? In part because we realize that many charters admirably choose to serve low-income children and, sadly, poverty continues to be a predictor of student success in America. To not factor in poverty would be unfair.

Our research shows:

* Six operators running new charters this fall have a record of low performing schools (below 33rd percentile): Mosaica; Leona Group LLC; Edtec Central LLC; Education Management and Networks; Solid Rock Management Company; and Midwest Management Group.

* Overall, 25 of 47 charter operators working in Michigan failed to meet our quality test. That is, half or more of their existing schools perform below the state average for low-income students.

* Some charters, like Oakland Academy, earned solid results. Likewise, the Detroit Merit Charter Academy, run by National Heritage Academies, routinely exceeds state scores for poor and minority students.

* But many operators run schools with chronic problems. For instance, Leona is running more charters this fall despite its oversight of the Academy for Business and Technology High School in Melvindale, where no 11th-graders were proficient in math last year.

We support any high-performing school – traditional or charter. We applaud charters that bring innovation and big ideas to education. What Michigan parents need, however, are not just choices, but quality choices. Operators with poor records should not expand until their current schools improve. Leading states have used quality measures for years.

We also call on sponsors of “parent-trigger” legislation to demand quality. Parents who trigger the closing of a failing school deserve assurance that the school they trigger to meets minimum quality measures. That’s just common sense.

Our students deserve the same quality assurances that children in Ohio and other states receive. Our state deserves graduates who can thrive in a global economy.

Michigan deserves quality.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.