A Closer Look: Michigan Radio Columnist Calls for Shuttering Charter Schools

Liberal columnist thinks best charters only open to 'well connected'

Jack Lessenberry, a columnist for Michigan Radio, wrote an Oct. 23 column that called for shutting down all of Michigan’s charter schools.

Lessenberry makes a number of demands and assertions that deserve a closer look. Here are some of them.

Lessenberry wrote: “That’s right — get rid of them, all of them. Many or most of them don’t work, and all of them are draining resources from our conventional public schools and helping further destabilize education.”

A Closer Look: “All of them?” That would include quite a few charter school success stories. For example, in Benton Harbor, parents of about 600 children have fled the academically subpar conventional public school district after discovering a haven in the Countryside Academy charter school. The school does well academically, scoring an A on the Mackinac Center’s school report card. Yet Countryside students have the same demographic profile as those in the public school district where most of them live. The conventional school district received a D in the middle school and high school rankings.

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Lessenberry wrote: “One thing is beyond doubt: Michigan has proven vastly incompetent at chartering, administering and overseeing these schools. … The worst-performing charters are allowed to stay open year after year, and that overall, charter schools have been no better than traditional schools in educating our poorest students.”

A Closer Look: By any definition, many schools in conventional districts have failed academically. Yet two years ago, a charter school advocate who challenged a school lobbyist to list one conventional public school that has been closed for reasons of academic failure never received a response. State officials have said that conventional schools have closed for poor academic performance, but have yet to cite an example. The Michigan Department of Education has said school closures are made at the local level and the state does not track the reasons.

In contrast, charter schools that don’t make the grade academically are and have been closed, though some have been closed for other reasons. Since 1994, when charter schools began in Michigan, 98 were open for a while and then closed. Academic deficiencies were cited in 28 of those closures. Last year Michigan had 302 public charter schools. Between 1994 and 2011 there was an artificial cap of 150 on the most common type of charter school.

Lessenberry wrote: The Michigan Radio columnist cited Stephen Henderson, editor of the Detroit Free Press editorial page, who wrote that he enrolled his children in one of what he (Henderson) called the “few high-performing charters” in Detroit. Lessenberry’s comment was, “Well, of course. He was able to do that, since he is both highly educated and well-connected. However, most people are neither.”

A Closer Look: As many charter school opponents do, Lessenberry asserts that high-performing charter schools don’t serve low-income students. This is false: They do. Evidence abounds that charter schools are giving children in poverty a better education.

For example, Cesar Chavez High School was recognized as the second-best charter high school in the state. It received an A on the Mackinac Center school report card, which recognizes the performance of schools that elevate challenging student populations by taking their socio-economic profile into account.

Cesar Chavez is located in Detroit, and 98.5 percent of its students were classified as economically disadvantaged last year, which means they’re eligible for a free or discounted lunch. In other words, poverty was an even larger challenge for the charter school than the district; 75.5 percent of the students in Detroit Public Schools met the common definition of economically disadvantaged. Statewide, 70 percent of the students in charter schools are low-income, compared to 44 percent in conventional public schools.

Did Henderson's community standing help ensure that his children were enrolled in a high-performing school? By law, charters must accept all students who apply. That means every parent has an equal shot at getting their child in, regardless of who they are or how much money they make.

Lessenberry wrote: “Their fans pointed to a few high-performing successful charters. But sadly, nothing has changed.”

A Closer Look: One of the country’s leading academic research organizations is Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Its scholars stated in studies performed in 2013 and 2015 that charter schools in Michigan mostly outperform their conventional peers. In 2015, CREDO said the city of Detroit’s charter schools should serve as a model of success for other communities. CREDO's reports have repeatedly been recognized by authorities such as former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Lessenberry wrote: “So if we did get rid of the charters, what should we do instead? The answer is simple — and incredibly complex: Commit ourselves as a state and a people to fixing public education. This won’t be easy.”

A Closer Look: When academically failing public schools are required to produce improvement plans, they tend to project only modest improvements — and those over time periods that exceed the school careers of most children. If Lessenberry had his way, parents within those school districts’ jurisdictions would have no alternative but to wait for improvement that may not arrive. Their children would be stuck year after year in failing conventional schools while all the status quo stakeholders try to tweak the system.

In two of those failing districts, Benton Harbor and Detroit, parents have a choice because charter schools are thriving and producing better academic results than their conventional public school peers. These are not the only cities where this is true, however. Throughout the state, charter schools are giving thousands of children an opportunity today for a better education than the conventional public school to which they are assigned by ZIP code.