As the state Legislature contemplates taking up
HB 4800, which would
raise the limit on the number of charter schools in Michigan, it would seem to
be doing so without regard to the charter movement's current track record. The
move to expand charters comes at a time when new data show poor performance on
the part of the charter schools we already have, not to mention the potential
for millions of dollars of new spending at a time of fiscal crisis. So far,
charters have failed at the two main objectives that spawned the movement:
increasing student achievement and fostering educational innovation.
Several comprehensive studies of the charter
school movement have been undertaken in recent years to help quantify the
performance of these schools. The most recent of these, a 2002 Brookings
Institution study, clearly shows that students in Michigan charter schools are
performing at a significantly lower level than students in traditional public
schools. The study concluded that, in many cases, charter school students were a
year and a half behind their traditional public school counterparts.
Apologists for charter schools have responded to
this data by pointing out that most charters serve disadvantaged children;
therefore it should be no surprise that their performance is lower when compared
to the overall population of traditional public schools. This assertion fails on
First, a 2002 charter study by the Upjohn
Institute in Kalamazoo compared like socio-economic groups in charter schools
and traditional public schools, and found a similar disparity in academic
performance to that found by the Brookings study in this specific sub-group.
Second, parental involvement is one of the
strongest factors in assuring high student achievement. This would lead one to
believe that the increased parental involvement of parents selecting their
child's charter school would be a significant advantage for student achievement
compared to the student's peers in traditional public schools. However, both the
Brookings and Upjohn studies deny that this advantage exists.
In regard to fostering innovation, the
aforementioned studies and two others from Western Michigan University in July
of 2000 faulted charters for not bringing educationally innovative methods to
the classroom. A frequently-cited cause for this lack of innovation is the
desire, on the part of for-profit educational management companies, to hold down
costs by standardizing the approach they take from school to school. Innovation
is expensive, and reduces profitability. It is time to challenge the notion that
using for-profit companies to manage charter schools is a good idea, for the
very reason that maximizing profit works against innovation.
In light of the information we now have, it is
hard to see why we would want to create more charter schools when they have
failed to foster innovation or improve student achievement.
If this were not bad enough, the management
companies that run many charter schools contend that they are not required to
open their books so that taxpayers can see how their money is being spent. This
doesn't sound like charter schools' vaunted "greater accountability."
Before raising the current cap on charter
schools, several things must occur: We must: (1) understand the factors that
contribute to the lack of achievement on the part of charter school students;
(2) put into place an accountability system that will provide transparency and a
means to evaluate all aspects of the performance of these schools (without
these, we risk placing an increasing group of students at an academic
disadvantage); 3) revisit the notion of for-profit management companies because
they seem to be anathema to innovation; and (4) ensure equity of access. The
fact is that very few charter schools accept or are equipped for special-needs
students. Yes, these students cost more to educate, but as public schools,
charters have a responsibility to educate all children whose parents desire this
Before we risk more of our children's academic
achievement and before we commit increasingly scarce resources to the charter
experiment, we owe it to the children of this state, and to ourselves, to have
these questions answered.
Frank Reid is a chief engineer for
Johnson Controls, Inc. Automotive Systems Group in Plymouth, Mich. He serves on
the Farmington Public Schools Board of Education, the board of the Oakland
County School Boards Association, and the Legal Trust Fund Board for the
Michigan Association of School Boards.