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We need performance-based charter authorizing system

Publication date: Feb 11, 2016

by Amber Arellano and Sunil Joy

With roughly half of Michigan’s charter schools ranking in the bottom quarter of all public schools for academic performance, it’s clear that the state has a serious charter performance problem. The challenge is particularly acute in Detroit, where the issue has wreaked market havoc and caused about 80 percent of schools – both charter and traditional – to open or close over the last seven years, according to recent testimony to state lawmakers by Mayor Mike Duggan.

The problem goes far beyond Detroit, however. Charter schools in communities such as Pontiac and Benton Harbor are so low performing, they are giving the sector a bad name. This is a terrible shame – and not at all what charter movement leaders promised when they opened charters in Michigan more than twenty years ago.

The root of the problem is the lack of accountability, especially on the part of the charter authorizers, the institutions that decide which charter schools can open, can stay open and can expand.

This month, the Education Trust-Midwest published a new report that shines a light on authorizers including grades for their schools’ academic performance. The good news is, overall the sector’s performance has improved marginally over the last year. For example, Eastern Michigan University improved its performance grade from an “F” last year to a “D.” That deserves some applause.

However, the sector is still terribly low performing compared with strong charter sectors around the country. And we know now who the chronic low-performing authorizers are in Michigan.

Three public universities – Northern Michigan University (NMU), Eastern Michigan University (EMU) and Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) – are the state’s worst performing authorizers today, according to ETM’s report. Roughly one-quarter of these three authorizers’ schools ranked among the state’s worst performing 10 percent of public schools statewide. About 19,000 students attend schools authorized by NMU, SVSU and EMU.

What’s remarkable is that no one in Michigan can hold these authorizers truly accountable by setting clear performance standards and shutting down authorizers that do not meet them, despite millions of Michigan taxpayers’ dollars investment in these public institutions for decades. This is in stark contrast to leading education states such as Massachusetts – and it must change.

Michigan needs a performance-based accountability system for authorizers, reflecting best practices from leading states across the country. Charter authorizing should be a privilege – and no longer a public entitlement — and should be earned and maintained by consistently high achievement.

To that end, we are recommending the state legislature adopt a system that rewards high-performing authorizers such as Washtenaw ISD or Grand Rapids Public Schools, with additional state support to open strong charter schools by operators that meet high performance standards.

And there should be sanctions for authorizers that consistently fail to provide better school choices for Michigan children. “F” and “D” graded authorizers, for example, should have to raise their portfolios’ academic performance or face sanctions – including, eventually, closure.

Just as teacher tenure today is based on performance, authorizing should be based on performance – and come with real accountability. Learning matters in the lives of children; it needs to matter for Michigan authorizers, too.

What about Detroit? In high-challenge communities such as Detroit and others where students are especially vulnerable, and the marketplace is terribly chaotic and incoherent, we support the creation of a local entity to provide an additional lever of accountability, as Mayor Duggan and the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren have recommended.

Though new state policies will be needed to develop and implement a performance-based system of authorizing and accountability in Michigan, there’s no need to wait for legislation for the state to take the first steps toward a healthier charter sector.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston should use his limited but important authority now to suspend poor-performing authorizers, and he should act promptly: Michigan students and their families have waited long enough.

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