by Rachel Weick, Grand Rapids Business Journal

Michigan’s statewide charter school system’s report card remains low compared to other leading academic performing states.

In its latest report, Accountability for All: 2016, The Education Trust-Midwest has proposed implementing the first statewide performance-based accountability system to hold Michigan charter school authorizers accountable for academic performance and management.

ETM, a Royal Oak-based research and advocacy organization, released its report earlier this month, which updated its 2015 scorecard for about 16 charter authorizers representing 95 percent of charter students statewide, and advocated for Michigan’s first accountability system to address the “devastatingly low performance” of a number of authorizers.

Brian Gutman, director of public engagement at ETM, said while there has been marginal improvement in charter school authorizers’ performance during the last year, it still remains low.

“We also took a look and saw that no one, not even the governor, holds authorizers accountable for their performance, despite the fact that there are tremendous implications,” said Gutman. “We felt it was important to move charter authorizing to a privilege that is earned and maintained through constant high achievement.”

Charter authorized schools serve about 145,000 children in Michigan and receive more than $1 billion of taxpayer dollars annually. The ETM report noted although charter schools are considered public schools, they are not governed by a district superintendent and elected school board, and about 80 percent of them are run by for-profit entities.

Sunil Joy, lead report author and senior data and policy analyst at ETM, said the organization is neutral about the type of schools, but it is not neutral about the quality of schools.

“We want high-quality education for all students, particularly low-income students and students of color,” said Joy. “The impact of charter schools for these students is tremendous. That is why we decided to look into this issue and then give our recommendation.”

Upon evaluating the 16 charter authorizers across Michigan, ETM found nearly 80 percent of Michigan charter schools performed below the state average for academic achievement in both math and reading.

Between 2011 and 2015, 20 percent of the authorizers were graded with a “D” or “F” based on decision-making for opening new schools, oversight of existing schools and improvement of the lowest-performing schools. The four authorizers were Detroit Public Schools, Saginaw Valley State University, Eastern Michigan University and Northern Michigan University.

“We think every Michigan student needs a diverse, high-quality education regardless of whether they are attending a traditional public or charter school. When we take a look at the low-performing authorizers on our scorecard … these are the schools where the student achievement is about half of the state,” said Gutman.

“The growth within the schools is consistently below state and district average, and then we also — this varied by authorizer — see cases of opening new schools with management companies with poor track records, or not intervening when the schools are struggling,” added Gutman.

The report also indicated the data suggested “efforts to bring greater public scrutiny and transparency to authorizer performance are helping to marginally improve student outcomes and authorizer practices, at least in the short-term.”

Eastern Michigan University raised its grade from an “F” to a “D” by closing a poor-performing school, and Oakland University improved from a “D” to a “C” from 2014 to 2015.

“The purpose here isn’t to bash anyone or bash charter schools; it is to make them better because we think charter schools can provide great opportunities — that is what they promised, originally,” said Joy.

To address the “lack of charter sector accountability,” ETM outlined a new strategy comprised of five performance measures. Although the state superintendent has limited oversight over suspending charter authorizers from opening new schools, Gutman said it doesn’t impact the schools they currently serve.

The accountability system would require all existing and new authorizers to complete an application process to remain or to become an authorizer. It would set rigorous standards for charter school openings, renewals and expansions, and would hold authorizers accountable for their schools’ performance based on student learning outcomes. It would also require full transparency from authorizers, their schools and operators, and provide special authority for high-challenge jurisdictions.

Joy said the new performance-based accountability strategy “incentivizes good practices and good decision-making by authorizers, and dis-incentivizes poor decision-making that isn’t in the best interest of students and communities.”

While some legislative change would be needed, Gutman said a dialogue about charter school quality and the lack of accountability is long overdue.

“We really see two major challenges to improvement, both overall quality as well as the accountability issue,” said Gutman. “The first is the status quo: Michigan has had charter schools for over 20 years, and we have seen the lack of accountability has, in far too many cases, led many charter schools in Michigan serving thousands of students to not live up to the promise of delivering a better education. The second is the existing lack of accountability.”

The report featured some charter school success stories, as well.

Grand Rapids Public Schools, which authorized the Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center, was considered an “A” authorizer for having “some of the largest learning gains of any public school statewide.”

Low-income students at the GRPS-authorized charter school have outperformed Kent Intermediate School District levels in math since 2011, and student proficiency rates have nearly doubled between 2011 and 2013 at the Child Discovery Center.

Mary Jo Kuhlman, assistant superintendent of organizational learning at GRPS, stated in the report the center is considered part of the district’s portfolio of school choices.

“GRPS is working with Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center to explore more ways to connect the school and district to leverage central office support services, such as professional development, evaluations, information technology services and more,” said Kuhlman.

Another West Michigan-based academic institution was considered a top-performing authorizer, with a “B” ranking: Grand Valley State University. The university oversees 67 charter schools throughout the state, including the University Preparatory Science & Math High School of Detroit and Detroit Merit Charter Academy, which were both distinguished as top public schools in Michigan.

Amber Arellano, a report author and executive director of ETM, said there are terrific charter school leaders and teachers doing the hard work of closing opportunity and achievement gaps.

“Sadly, they are in the minority in Michigan,” said Arellano. “We need to change that and we can, with strong state leadership and political will.”