News

Gains seen, but more work needed for charter authorizers

Publication date: Feb 11, 2016

by Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press

Charter school authorizers are making better decisions about the opening and closing of schools in Michigan, but it’s not enough,  according to a report out today that analyzes and grades the performance of charter authorizers.

“Overall, the sector is still deeply troubling,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education research and advocacy group that issued its second annual analysis of charter authorizers. “There’s going to have to be years of hard work needed to really improve the sector overall.”

The organization, in its report, proposes a performance-based accountability system for the school districts, intermediate school districts, community colleges and universities that authorize charter schools. The system, the report said, should be based on the performance of the schools overseen by the authorizers and decisions they make about the opening and closings of schools. It’s the latter criteria that helped some authorizers improve their grades.

Just 16 of the state’s 40 authorizers had enough data to be included in the analysis.

The report, though, was criticized by the Michigan Council of Charter Authorizers, which represents most of the state’s charter authorizers. Jared Burkhart, executive director of the council, said that since the first report was issued a year ago, he and others have raised concerns about the methodology used to determine the authorizer grades. He said the rankings are too   focused on the state’s top-to-bottom ranking of schools, but he said that ranking is flawed because it unfairly compares schools with high poverty rates with those that have low poverty rates.

“Their failure to fix any of the methodological or other weaknesses in that report just shows they have a predetermined outcome,” he said.

Sunil Joy, senior data analyst and policy analyst for Education Trust-Midwest, said the organization looked at more than top-to-bottom rankings. A school was deemed to have met the organization’s minimum standard if it ranked above the 50th percentile or if it had better improvement in reading and math than the state average and the average of the local school district where most students reside.

Burkhart said his council agrees with the need for a strong accountability system for authorizers.

“That’s why we came out with our accreditation system,” Burkhart said, referring to a voluntary accreditation process that one authorizer has already successfully completed and another plans to start soon. “We believe accountability is good for everybody. We just want to make sure the rules aren’t biased to try to come up with a political solution to eliminate authorizers. We want it to be a fair assessment.”

The state does not currently have a mechanism for holding authorizers accountable, aside from a provision in state law that allows the state superintendent to suspend an authorizer. That provision has never been used, though the Michigan Department of Education in 2014 placed 11 authorizers at risk of suspension. The MDE has since reduced that number to four. MDE officials didn’t respond to a question about the current status of those at-risk of suspension.

The grades are based on several factors: decisions regarding charter school openings and the quality of the operators, whether the authorizer is overseeing schools that are as good as or better than other school options available to parents, and whether the authorizer is improving its chronically failing schools.

This year the grades were updated to focus only on decisions authorizers made in the last year about opening and closing schools.

The other four: There should be a “reset” requiring current and new authorizers to complete a rigorous application process before they’re allowed to become or remain authorizers; the state should set rigorous standards for the opening, renewal or expansion of charters; authorizers should be held accountable for the performance of their schools and the state should require transparency for authorizers, along with their schools and the organizations that operate them.

In communities such as Detroit, only authorizers with an A or B grade should be allowed to open charter schools, the report says.

These are communities, “where the school market is so chaotic and students are so vulnerable and it’s clear that another level of accountability is needed,” Arellano said.

John Austin, president of the state Board of Education, agrees. The state board Tuesday approved a statement urging the Legislature to create a mechanism overseeing the opening and closing of public schools to ensure quality, accessibility and financial stability. Detroit and other urban communities have too many schools competing for too few students, and it’s hurting the quality of schools, Austin said.

“We’re not going to increase learning performance in Michigan as dramatically as we must … if we don’t as a state get our arms around (it).”

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or lhiggins@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @LoriAHiggins.

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