The battle over charter schools has heated considerably since a withering New York Times article on August 17. The Times reported that researchers employed by the American Federation of Teachers analyzed data regarding the performance of charter school students on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, concluding, "In almost every racial, economic and geographic category, fourth graders attending charter schools are outperformed by their peers in traditional public schools."

Three Harvard researchers replied the next day in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by pointing out that the NAEP measures student performance only at a single point in time. To get the real picture, they argued, one needs to examine academic gains, and in this light, charter schools appear to outperform traditional public schools because of the improvements made by charter school students, whose skills are often subpar for their grade level when they enter their charter school.

And so the volleys go.

It’s an important debate, but it fails to address the main issue. Back in 1993, the year Michigan passed its first charter school law, the idea was to create a public school model that would be free of spools of government red tape and to create a competitive market environment in education.

But using these criteria, charter schools don’t exist. Granted, there are 217 Michigan charter schools authorized (or chartered) by various public entities, such as universities and colleges. And despite the supposed "failure" of charter schools, parents continue choosing to enroll more than 80,000 Michigan students in them.

Still, these schools are hardly deregulated. Like conventional public schools, charters are required to hire certified teachers, administer state and federal tests and follow, among other things, the Michigan School Code, which constitutes a veritable volume by itself. In addition, charter schools sometimes experience more regulatory oversight than conventional public schools, because a charter school board must comply with its authorizer’s requirements.

The authorizers — most of whom utilize excellent oversight mechanisms — have to wrangle in turn with the Michigan Department of Education and the State Board of Education to retain the modicum of independence they do have. Even as you read this, the state has a "consultant" who is busily proposing ways to expand the MDE’s oversight of charters.

This is particularly ironic, given that the MDE is not providing effective oversight of traditional public schools. Witness the current embarrassment reported by the Detroit News in which "eighty-three percent of Michigan elementary and middle schools that failed federal achievement standards for at least four years ... gave themselves A’s on self evaluations," thereby skewing the MDE’s annual report card on the schools’ performance.

If charters have never been deregulated, the competitive environment is even worse. The number of charter schools allowed by state law is capped, leaving only 217 in existence, despite the parental demand for more. A couple hundred charters in an environment of some 3,500 conventional schools cannot be regarded as a "free market."

Add all this up and what do you get? Charter schools are forced to spend too much time and money on regulatory compliance, while dodging political arrows in an environment where the state education establishment is working to see them closed, rather than expanded.

Considering this, the gains that charter schools have made in so short a time are truly amazing. Just imagine what would happen if the Legislature let charter schools work as they are supposed to.

The Legislature should revamp Michigan’s charter school law in three ways. First, it should set charters free from reams of education laws that haven’t resulted in one day’s gain for students anywhere. Second, it should erase the cap on their number, so we can see what true market competition can do for all students. And third, it should tell the MDE that its track record with conventional public schools gives it little credibility when it comes to charters.

In response to the critics who look at charter schools and say that market competition doesn’t work, I would paraphrase the English historian G.K. Chesterton: Charter schools have not been tried and found wanting. Rather, the Legislature found them difficult – and left them untried.

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Brian L. Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.