Charter school conference draws hundreds

Speakers challenge school officials to "step up" and improve education

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Lawrence Reed, president of the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins offered a joint presentation at the November Michigan Association of Public School Academies 4th Annual Charter School Conference in Ypsilanti.

Hundreds of individuals from Michigan's charter school community of 186 schools and 66,000 students gathered Nov. 7-8 to participate in the 4th Annual Charter School Conference in Ypsilanti.

The Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of charter school leaders and supporters, hosts the conference each year as a way for teachers, administrators, parents, policy-makers, and others to network and share the latest news on developments relating to charter school education.

The two-day affair featured joint presentations and a discussion by Lawrence Reed, president of the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and Tom Watkins, Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Reed's speech, entitled "Four Principles and a Challenge," outlined several concepts he said are essential if the quality of Michigan public education is to improve. The concepts included an understanding that the needs of children come before the needs of the school system, parents are an indispensable component of the educational process, competition is a necessary precondition to improved quality, and encouraging diverse methods of delivering education to students is important.

Reed publicly challenged Watkins to embrace the reform concepts and offered six things Watkins could personally do to facilitate dramatic and positive school reform.

"Tom, I want you to be the best and most successful education superintendent in the nation," Reed said. "If you'll step up and implement the agenda I'm presenting here, you'll become just that."

The six things Reed said Watkins should do included being supportive of all modes of education, whether public, charter, private, or home school; emphasizing that more money is not the solution to every problem; encouraging schools to better manage their budgets through privatization of support services; championing greater parental choice in education; calling for repeal of a union-supported prevailing wage law that forces schools to waste millions of dollars every year; and demanding an end to the forced unionization of public school teachers.

"Do you want me to be run out of town on a rail?" Watkins joked, before offering praise for charter schools and admitting that reforms are needed to improve public education.

Watkins's suggestions included paying teachers for performance and allowing teachers to form private partnerships and associations. He also argued that changes in the state's teacher education programs would boost teacher quality.

"When 80 percent of our teachers are certified, 20 percent have master's degrees, but 20 percent or less of our children are learning-something's not right," he said.

"Colleges of education are the weakest link in education reform today," he added.

Other speakers at the conference agreed.

"Stop talking about teacher certification, start talking about teacher qualification," said Samuel Casey Carter, author of the book, "No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools." "Principals must be free to decide who to hire, who to fire, what to teach. . . . We must be able to accept freedom in exchange for performance," he told attendees.

Carter profiled a number of schools featured in his book and described how the success of schools that serve low-income students, yet post impressive gains on standardized tests, leaves "no excuse" for other schools to have poor performance.

"If they can do it with so little, we can do it," he said.

Carter concluded by encouraging charter school officials to elicit feedback from parents and students as the best guide for how to improve their schools.

"If you want to know how you're doing, ask your customers."

Several state legislators updated conference participants on the latest education bills, including HB 4800 (see www.michiganvotes.org/bill.asp?ID=6003), which would increase the legislative cap on university-sponsored charter schools. The cap currently stands at 150.

State Rep. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, sponsor of the bill, said the legislation may pass if legislators can garner enough support in the House.

More information on MAPSA and Michigan charter schools is available at www.charterschools.org.

More information on "No Excuses" is available at www.noexcuses.org. The text of Lawrence Reed's speech is available at www.mackinac.org/3852.