"The debate over whether to have more choice in the public schools in this country is essentially over. The positive parts of choice are just too powerful."
The Michigan Public School Academies (charter schools) program has been the subject of three previous evaluations. Each of these evaluations offered both positive and negative judgments, but all three acknowledged the beneficial influence of competition from charter schools and public "schools-of-choice" on government schools.
The first report, conducted by Jerry Horn and Gary Miron of The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University (hereafter referred to as the "Western Michigan Report"), was released in January 1999.16 Commissioned by the Michigan Department of Education, it focused on 51 charter schools from all areas of the state except southeastern Michigan (the greater metropolitan Detroit region). Data were collected between October 1997 and December 1998.
The Western Michigan Report found that many traditional public school districts responded to the new competition for students by offering new programs such as all-day kindergarten and before- and after-school programs. Many districts also increased the amount of adult supervision of playgrounds, stepped up efforts to communicate with and involve parents, and placed greater emphasis on foreign languages and MEAP test results. Most tellingly, the Western Michigan Report stated that "the greatest impact of the [charter schools] is that they are forcing more accountability upon the traditional public schools."17
In February 1999, Public Sector Consultants (a private Michigan corporation, specializing in policy research; opinion polling; and health, environmental, educational and economic analysis) and Maximus Inc. (a public-sector consulting firm) released a report also commissioned by the Michigan Department of Education. The report (hereafter referred to as the "PSC Report"), which focused on southeastern Michigan Public School Academies, examined the financial impact of competition from charter schools and whether charter schools spurred innovation among traditional public schools.18
The PSC Report concluded that school districts that lose more than five percent of their students to charter schools would incur a negative financial impact. However, the report found no evidence of districts in the study area actually facing a financial crisis because of charter schools. The PSC Report did find evidence that charters were spurring traditional public schools to offer more innovative programs, to be more responsive to parents and students, and even to participate in the "schools-of-choice" program.19
In October 1999, a team of Michigan State University researchers released the third report, an evaluation of both the charter-school and the "schools-of-choice" programs (hereafter referred to as the "MSU Report").20 The MSU Report recommended expanding the charter-school program because that program had widened the range of options available to parents and had forced traditional public schools to be more responsive to parents.
The MSU Report also noted that many affluent districts had chosen to avoid participation in the "schools-of-choice" program and expressed concern about the "social sorting" of students. The study recommended: a) creating a uniform admissions policy for charter schools; b) making contingency plans for the possible failure of existing districts; c) providing more information about schools to the public; and d) granting additional financial support to charter schools. Professor Gary Sykes, one of the authors of the MSU Report, noted that "The debate over whether to have more choice in the public schools in this country is essentially over. The positive parts of choice are just too powerful."21
Not everyone, however, is convinced of the benefits of competition. Luigi Battaglieri, president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA), believes that charter schools have failed to demonstrate any clear superiority over their peers in traditional government schools on achievement tests, and in some cases have actually done worse. "When the charter schools were touted to us they were supposed to be pedagogical innovations," Battaglieri told WKAR's program "Off The Record" in late 1999. "There haven't been any pedagogical innovations, there has simply been replication of the good programs . . . that have been working in public schools," he said.22 Competition, Battaglieri stated, has not had any demonstrable effect on quality, and it may actually be doing harm.
It is true that charter-school students in Michigan have sometimes scored lower in certain categories and grades than students in traditional government schools. Charter school officials note, however, that many students entering their schools are students who were not doing well in traditional public schools. In addition, most charter schools are still relatively new. These facts make it understandable that test scores at charter schools might not measure up to scores at traditional public schools, especially at first. But it is untrue that test score results have always favored students in traditional schools. For example, 1999 statewide results of the MEAP test showed higher-than-average scores for 5th and 8th grade charter-school students in writing and science.23
However, Battaglieri's contention that competition is having no impact and could actually do harm is the issue addressed in this report: Does competition created through charter schools and the "schools-of-choice" program improve educational opportunities for Michigan children?