At first, many thought charter schools would be educational laboratories, homes to the most experimental curriculums and ideas. That's not happening, despite promises and plans by many charter schools.

Instead, innovations are being made in the traditional public schools, which are developing creative ways to please parents and compete with charter schools.

These are two of the findings in the first major reports on Michigan charter schools, which were approved by the Legislature in 1995.

The state Board of Education commissioned two reports to study charter schools over five years. The Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants studied schools in the nine counties of southeastern Michigan. Western Michigan University studied the rest.

The board received both reports on February 18.

The studies also looked at charter school achievement on standardized tests and at parent satisfaction, and raised questions about the role of large, for-profit management companies in charter schools.

One of the most striking findings was how traditional public schools are responding to the competition.

"They are forcing more accountability on the public schools," said WMU's Gary Miron, a report author. "We're seeing marketing, professional development, after-school programs, all-day kindergarten, introduction of foreign languages, more magnet schools."

Dearborn Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Hughes has said he challenged his schools to compete almost as soon as the ink was dry on the charter school legislation.

Today about half of Dearborn's 30 schools are theme or magnet schools, including creative arts, language arts, science, business, environmental studies and community service, Spanish and global studies. Three elementary schools are year-round schools.

The one drawback is there aren't enough seats in each school to satisfy demand, Hughes said.

Both reports found that charter schools generally scored lower on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests.

Demand for charter schools grew 50 percent this year over last year, Public Sector Consultants found. Statewide about 40,000 students attend charter schools.

"Parents are in an urban environment where a good education costs money and they might not have the funds to send their child to an expensive private school," said Godfrey Dillard, a Detroit attorney and cofounder of the George Crockett Academy.

"When there aren't many alternatives, charter schools begin to look very good, especially if they're providing their kids with a better education and experience," he said.

That some charter schools are under-performing compared to the public school record is an unfair comparison, Dillard said.

"Charter schools have only been around a couple of years and are still facing the growing pains of putting in the infrastructure," he said.

For Maria Romero, a 42-year-old mother of four in southwest Detroit, charter schools offer a more relaxed and familiar surrounding than regular public schools.

"The teachers all have plenty of dedication to the children," said Romero, who has two daughters in the Cesar Chavez Academy. "The children who aren't up to speed aren't pushed out. The teachers work with them. In other schools, they forget about them."

Both reports raised questions about large management companies, which are increasingly playing a role in charter schools.

Management companies help improve charter schools' administration and bookkeeping, the studies found.

But they may be raking in profits while producing what WMU researchers called "cookie-cutter" schools.

The percent of Michigan's approximately 140 charter schools using management companies grew from 40 percent in 1997-98 to about 70 percent in 1998-99, WMU's Miron said. About half the management companies are large ones managing an ever-increasing number of charter schools.

Mark DeHahn is vice-president of National Heritage Academies, one of the largest charter school management companies in Michigan with 13 schools on the west side of the state and plans to open another 12, several of which will be in metropolitan Detroit.

Each National Heritage school is given specific academic goals, DeHahn said. How the school meets those goals is up to the principal. But the company does make available research showing the "best practices" in the various academic disciplines, he said.

"I believe it's irresponsible not to use the best practices in the schools we work with," DeHahn said.

Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki wrote this article for the Detroit Free Press. Reprinted with permission.