Charter schools get good marks

Research shows positive effects on students, other schools

Five years of studies on charter schools throughout Michigan and the United States show that charters are meeting the needs of traditionally underserved children and forcing traditional public schools to change for the better, according to a November 2000 report released by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform (CER).

The CER report analyzed the existing body of research on charter schools and identified 53 research-based and predominantly objective studies to incorporate into a comprehensive picture of how charter schools are serving students. Included in the analysis were numerous studies on Michigan's charter schools.

The CER report found that the popularity of charter schools remains high. U.S. Department of Education studies profiled in the report show 7 out of 10 U.S. charter schools have long waiting lists.

In 1992, only one charter school existed in the entire country. Today, more than 2,000 charters dot the nation's landscape. In Michigan, the number of charters stood at 14 in 1994; currently, there are 184 charter schools throughout the state, serving approximately 58,000 students.

Michigan's charters, also called "public school academies" or PSAs, can be authorized by state universities, community colleges, intermediate school districts, or local school districts. Although Michigan's law has stifled the growth of charter schools by only allowing 150 to be authorized by state universities, a number of school districts have chosen to authorize additional charters.

The CER report cites many studies that show competition from charter schools has encouraged public schools to improve and offer additional programs. Recent research by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants (PSC) confirms this to be true in Michigan. According to PSC's web site, www.publicsectorconsultants.com, PSAs make traditional public schools "likely to add specific features that . . . neighboring PSAs offer (such as all-day kindergarten, before- and after-school programs, and emphasis on character education)."

A study by Western Michigan University (WMU) also highlights many ways in which Michigan's charters have spurred improvement in public schools. The WMU study finds that charters encourage public schools to be more responsive to parents, to establish additional programs, to create options that better fit students' needs, and to achieve consensus between teachers, parents, administrators, and others as to what the school is trying to achieve.

While many of the studies' findings are positive, Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) scores cited in the PSC and WMU studies have raised doubts about student academic achievement in charter schools. These studies, along with the CER report, cite many instances where charter school test scores are lower than scores in public schools in the same districts.

Yet, the CER study says it is difficult to track student achievement in charters by simply comparing achievement test scores to those of the public schools in the same district, given the short period of time charters have been in existence and the dynamic nature of schools themselves. As more charters open across the country and existing charters add grades to meet increased demand, achievement test results incorporate different groups of students each year, making it difficult to track ongoing progress.

Another factor that often skews achievement test results is the fact that, contrary to the expectations of charter school critics, students who transfer to charters are often the students who are struggling in public schools—not the high achievers—meaning their test scores will, on average, be lower than the averages at traditional schools.

Studies also show charters are serving an ethnically diverse array of students and appealing to students through innovative programs and services. CER's report profiles numerous studies that show charters across the country serve more low-income and minority students than do traditional public schools. Also, studies show many charters cater to "at-risk" students—providing another option for students who may otherwise drop out of school and a second chance for students who are expelled or suspended from public schools.

One area where charters may be lacking is special education. Charters have far fewer special education students than public schools, usually due to the lack of resources to provide for severely disabled children. However, many charter students with learning disabilities are placed in mainstream classrooms with great success. And there are a few charter schools in Michigan that cater especially to students with learning disabilities.

What is the bottom line? Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies says the studies confirm his belief that charters are making a difference for students who have not been served by traditional schools.

"Charter schools are the first education reform in decades to succeed," Quisenberry says. "Anyone seeking the story behind the numbers—looking inside Michigan's charter schools—is going to find tremendous proof of children learning more, better, faster."

For more information on the CER report, see the Center's web site at http://edreform.com/pubs/charters.htm.