A growing push back against charter schools
The president of the Michigan State Board of Education said there are “detrimental effects” on education performance with an "unregulated" school marketplace where parents are left to decide.
John Austin made the comments in an email when asked about accountability of charter public schools. He said parents don’t have “perfect information” about education quality and “many parents and their students can't execute a choice if they wanted to… they don't have time energy, transportation money to pick or get to a different school.” (See Austin's full comment here).
In a later phone interview, Austin said he considers Michigan to be "heading in the direction" of an "unregulated" school marketplace.
Austin’s comments are part of growing sentiment among the public sector’s top decision makers that charter schools need more oversight.
State Superintendent Michael Flanagan said he would use his authority to suspend charter authorizers that don’t measure up after a series of articles by the Detroit Free Press was critical of charter schools.
Austin also cited Paul Reville, the former Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, as saying that if a charter school doesn’t outperform a conventional public school, “there is no reason to have them.”
“We hold our charters to a higher standard of performance than typical schools because there are extra costs associated with charters. We expect them to be innovative and high performing. If they’re not, it’s hard to justify the increased expenditure,” said Reville, now the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Reville said that an example of tight control in Massachusetts was that there aren’t multiple authorizes of charter schools, just a single authorizer with “very clear standards and procedures.”
“We close down charter schools if they are not high performing,” he said. “The standards are just high. What we are saying is the school has to be innovative and it has to be high performing. It can’t be more of the same.”
Austin’s stance is that charter schools that don’t do better than conventional schools aren’t necessary.
But Audrey Spalding, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, wondered what these state officials have done to bring accountability to Michigan’s conventional school system.
“Why do state officials value conventional schools more than charter schools? Why should a higher standard applied to charter schools?” Spalding asked.
Karen Braun, a parent activist who blogs about school issues and is involved with “Stop Common Core in Michigan," said that Austin’s comments about parental ability to make choices on education for their children are at odds with the Michigan revised school code. She said the school code recognizes that parents have the “natural and fundamental right” to direct the education of their children and public schools work by “cooperating with the pupil’s parents and legal guardian.”
“It speaks to who is the ultimate authority in education in Michigan,” Braun said. “Parents are the authority and Austin and the schools [are supposed to] work in cooperation with us.”
Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said charter schools are often a better academic option for students than the conventional school district they came from. Naeyaert cited a Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study done by Stanford University that found Detroit school children are learning at a rate of an extra three months in school a year when in charter public schools compared to similar counterparts in conventional Detroit Public Schools.
Naeyaert said Austin and others who want more restrictions on charter schools have a limited view of choice in education.
“They believe choice is restricted options within the traditional public school model or allow you to pay tuition for a private school. That’s what they believe choice is,” he said.
Spalding said the concern of the extra cost associated with more charter schools isn’t persuasive.
“Using that logic, why have any choice at all? There are extra costs to having alternative grocery stores, doctors, etc. — should the government ban those options?” Spalding asked.
Editor's Note: The story has been updated to clarify Austin's comments.