Charter Competition Helps Public Schools Improve, Says MSU Study

But Researchers, Administrators Divided over Issue of Accountability

Source: Governor John Engler, Lessons from the 20th Century, Leadership for the 21st Century (2000 State of the State Address, Wednesday, January 19, 2000)

The number of charter schools in Michigan should be expanded, but the state needs to improve regulations to govern the schools' operation, according to a recent study from three Michigan State University professors.

The 99-page study, School Choice Policies in Michigan: The Rules Matter, concludes that competition from charters has helped bring improvements to public schools-such as more after-school programs-and that additional charters will bring further improvements, particularly for low-income children.

But the study cautions that while private educational management companies have fueled the charter explosion, the importance of public accountability needs to be better respected.

"We're not saying the emergence of educational management organizations is bad, but it raises issues including how they're spending public money," explains David Arsen, an associate professor in MSU's James Madison College and one of the report's co-authors.

The study also argues the state must help children who cannot take advantage of charters and are instead forced to remain in troubled districts.

"Choice is good, but you have to minimize the costs that it imposes on some kids," says Arsen. "Our position is not that failing districts have to be saved, but that children in these districts can't be hurt and the state has a responsibility to them."

The study has drawn criticism from some charter school supporters, who deny that charters are any less accountable to the public than traditional public schools.

"I get skeptical of a report that calls for anything beyond what's expected of all public schools," says Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. "We're empowering parents and teachers to be effective. We don't want to weigh them down with statewide rules and regulations."

But Arsen and the study's two other co-authors, Professors Gary Sykes and David Plank, report that charter schools often neglect high school and special education students, who cost the most to educate. This trend raises costs at traditional public schools, increasing the likelihood that a district will fall into financial ruin, they say.

"Michigan should take active steps now, before a crisis occurs, before a school district fails," warns Plank.

Quisenberry disagrees again, noting that state law requires charter schools to accept all applicants. He also notes that nearly 70 percent of Michigan's charter schools are offering middle and/or high school grades this year, up dramatically from about 40 percent in the 1998-99 school year. Much of the increase comes from schools that are adding a grade each year as planned in their charter contracts.

"Charters often open with a set number of grades, work to have those running smoothly, and then add grades as students progress," Quisenberry says. "This 70-percent figure once again proves that the naysayers are grossly exaggerating."

Quisenberry adds that a growing number of charter schools are also serving students with special needs (see related story).

Meanwhile, a charter school study soon to be released by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy draws both similar and different conclusions from the MSU study.

Study authors Dr. Matthew Ladner, president of Capital Research and Consulting in Texas, and Matthew J. Brouillette, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center agree with the MSU study that charter schools have helped to improve traditional public schools. "The competitive pressures of charter schools can prompt improvement or innovation in public school curriculum," they say.

But the study's findings contrast with the MSU study on the issue of public accountability. Charters do maintain accountability, Ladner argues, but this accountability ultimately involves parents rather than the government.

The Mackinac Center's study also differs with the MSU professors' conclusion that charter schools have not resulted in significant innovation in elementary education. The professors cite as evidence the fact that methods of teaching in charters are often "indistinguishable" from those of traditional public schools.

Ladner and Brouillette note that the charter schools' incentive to respond directly to parental demands increases the likelihood they will adopt programs and methods that are effective.

"The question of whether or not charter schools are doing things that no school has done before is almost irrelevant," they write. "Charter schools simply increase the availability and diversity of programs that are available to individual parents, which is much more important."

Charter school administrators also dismissed the MSU study's conclusion on innovation as unimportant.

"In public education, we have tried all sorts of innovations for the last 30 years," says Jeff Poole, a spokesman for National Heritage Academies, a private Grand Rapids company that manages charter schools. "Parents want good, solid, back-to-basics academics with excellent results."

Dr. Ormand Hook, principal of Crossroads Charter Academy in Big Rapids, says, "There is nothing new under the sun. We are merely providing instruction that has been proven to work over the centuries, not some new curriculum fads."