Recently, Michigan’s 186 charter schools have come under unfair attack.
During the recent campaign, the Democratic candidate for governor took a swipe at Michigan’s charter schools, telling the Lansing State Journal that they “lack accountability.”
Far from lacking accountability, charters actually meet one critical measure of accountability that no other public schools can boast: the ability of their customers to say “no, thanks” and take a walk. No Michigan parent is required to send their child to a charter school. If, for any reason, charter parents are unhappy, they can always return to a traditional public school at any time.
Charter schools have exactly the kind of bottom-up accountability needed to improve public education in Michigan. More than 66,000 students - just about 3 percent of public school students - benefit from charter schools. At the same time, some 70 percent of charter schools have waiting lists, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state association of charter schools.
Charter schools also have been criticized for their low test scores. Last September, the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution released a report indicating that children at America’s charter schools are not scoring as well as their traditional public school counterparts.
Although the authors state, “We do not know why charters performed at this level,” they do recognize the possibility that it could be because charter schools largely have been accepting students who have not performed well in traditional public schools. Think about it: Children who are doing well and are happy with their assigned school aren’t likely to leave for a charter.
And guess what? Research from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy indicates that charter school test scores are rising at a much faster rate than test scores at traditional public schools. If this trend continues, student achievement in charter schools will soon catch up with and surpass that of traditional public schools.
Further, a recent report authored by Hillsdale College economist and former deputy state treasurer Gary Wolfram has encouraging evidence on charter school effectiveness. Children who attend for at least two years charter schools run by National Heritage Academies, a private company, generally score higher than their public school peers on standardized tests. National Heritage Academies operates 24 charter schools in Michigan.
It is ironic that in spite of these hopeful signs of the growing effectiveness of charter schools, some want to regulate charters to death in the name of “accountability.” Greater accountability is the whole reason charters exist. But the growing amount of paperwork charter schools have to file - in order to be even more accountable - is already aggravating their administrators.
“You feel like you’re jumping through hoops, not helping kids,” says David Angerer, chief administrative officer of the Black River Public School, a charter school based in Holland. “Sometimes we can’t focus resources on student needs, but are mired in reporting requirements.” Even though his school “fills out every piece of regulatory paper the public schools do,” the school also must comply with regulations from its charter authorizer, Grand Valley State University. This combination often produces a mountain of paperwork so large that it requires a diversion of resources from the school’s main purpose, educating students.
Much of the push for more regulations is driven by the threat charter schools pose to union power. Luigi Battaglieri, president of the Michigan Education Association, wrote in a Sept. 10, 2002 letter that he wanted to “put checks and balances into the charter school movement” through enactment of HB 4800, a bill that mandates a host of new charter school requirements. Needless to say, this is not the first time a special interest has attempted to get government to restrict its competition.
The dirty little secret of Michigan’s education establishment is that it doesn’t really believe the system (that is, itself) needs to be reformed. That’s why reformers devised the idea of charter schools, and also vouchers and tuition tax credits: as ways to impose reform from outside the system. And charters, at least so far, are making headway. This terrifies the establishment, which wants to dub them a failure, limit their numbers and regulate them out of existence.
This - and our children’s futures - are the best reasons to keep charters thriving in Michigan.
(Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)