Charter School Critics: Accountability For Thee But Not For Me

State won't shut down failing traditional public schools

Last year, no fifth-graders at Detroit’s Gardner Elementary School scored proficient on a statewide math test. No fifth-graders scored proficient in social studies, and no fourth-grade student was proficient in science.

Those dismal testing results were nothing new for the troubled elementary school. Since 2010, Gardner, a conventional district school, has been ranked by the state in the bottom five percent of all Michigan public schools.

This record of ongoing failure is not unique, but it does put a spotlight on one disconnect in the current critique of charter schools in this state. The public school establishment and the media have made an issue with accountability for charter schools, but according to charter school advocates, that shows a lopsided worldview.

“There is much less of an emphasis on the performance of traditional public schools,” said Gary Naeyaert, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project. “All the discussion on school accountability is focused on the performance of charter public schools, which represent 10 percent of the state’s students.”

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There have been 99 charter schools closed since 1997. Until 2011, the number of charters authorized by state universities (the most common form) was subject to an artificial cap of 150 schools. The number of charter schools started growing once the cap was lifted. As of the current school year, there are 302 "public school academies," as charter schools are formally known.

The numbers suggest that nearly a quarter of all the charter schools that ever opened in Michigan have closed or been closed. 

In contrast, Naeyaert claims that the state of Michigan has never closed a single conventional public school for academic reasons. He points to 16 non-charter public schools that remain open despite having been among the worst-performing schools in the state in every year going back to 2010.

Gardner is one of those 16 schools. Seven of the schools are in the EAA district, a form of state receivership for the 15 worst-performing public schools in the state, all located in Detroit.

EAA Spokesman Robert Guttersohn said closing schools has never been a priority for the EAA.

"The EAA was created to address schools in the bottom 5 percent of the Top to Bottom state rankings," Guttersohn said in an email. "All 15 schools within the district were placed in that category. Since its formation, the district has focused on school turnaround for each EAA school. We have succeeded in moving 3 schools (Brenda Scott Academy, Trix Performance Academy, and Central Collegiate Academy) out of the bottom 5 percent."

Naeyaert said no charter school authorizer would fail to close a charter school with a track record like the 16 chronically poor-performing schools he identified.

Michigan Department of Education Spokesman William DiSessa referred questions to the State Reform Office, which is now under the supervision of Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB).

“We are not aware of any traditional public schools that have been closed by the state for academic reasons, definitely not any closed by the School Reform Office,” said Caleb Buhs, spokesman for the DTMB.

Buhs pointed out that 73 of 331 schools that were flagged by the state and put on a priority list for low-performing schools have been closed by their own district. The state does not, however, keep track of why local districts close any particular schools. The reasons include factors unrelated to academic performance, such as falling enrollment.

“This is significant because those districts made tough decisions based on the reality that their schools were among the bottom-performing schools in all of Michigan,” Buhs said.

Buhs said the State Reform Office recently appointed an expert to oversee four schools in the East Detroit district to improve their academic performance.

He also explained that the state did not release a ranking of the lowest-performing schools in 2015 because it was the first year of a new statewide standardized test (the MSTEP), so a list based on historical performance would not be statistically valid.

Sixteen schools have been on the state's list of the worst-performing schools on a continual basis. None is a charter school. They are:

  • Gardner Elementary School (DPS)
  • Fisher Magnet Lower Academy (DPS)
  • Carstens Elementary-Middle School (DPS)
  • Detroit Collegiate Prep High School at Northwestern (DPS)
  • Denby High School (EAA)
  • Pershing High School (EAA)
  • Mumford High School (EAA)
  • Southeastern High School (EAA)
  • Burns Elementary-Middle School (EAA)
  • Phoenix Elementary-Middle School (EAA)
  • Ford High School (EAA)
  • Ralph J. Bunche Academy (Ecorse School District)
  • Ann Visger K-5 Preparatory Academy (River Rouge Public Schools)
  • Riddle Elementary (Lansing School District)
  • Woodward School for Technology and Research (Kalamazoo Public Schools)
  • Pontiac High School (Pontiac Public Schools)