Governor’s letter on charter schools stirs controversy among authorizers

Conflict erupts regarding progresss, oversight

Charter school advocates are questioning why a letter sent Sept. 22 from Gov. Jennifer Granholm to the presidents of public universities targeted their efforts in chartering public school academies, but was not sent to public school districts or intermediate school districts that also establish charter schools.

Gov. Granholm begins the letter to the presidents with a "challenge" to take on a new role in school accountability "in relation to the public school academies your institution has chartered."

While pointing out that recent data shows an increase in the number of charter schools that achieved Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law during the 2004-2005 school year, Granholm goes on to say, "at the same time, however, these data suggest a troubling pattern of low performance in a significant number of PSAs."

The Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers replied to Granholm in a Sept. 23 letter.

"Of the 488 public schools requiring corrective action this year for failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress pursuant to federal No Child Left Behind requirements, only 8 percent are charter schools," the letter states. "Indeed, of the nearly 70 schools in the latter stages of corrective actions, none are charter schools."

According to the MCCSA, 84 percent of public school academies chartered by member organizations achieved AYP, compared with 69 percent of those chartered by public school districts or intermediate school districts. In total, 82 percent of charters achieved AYP, compared to 61 percent the previous year.

Of the 26 bodies in Michigan that authorize charter schools, 10 belong to MCCSA and account for 183 of the 216 charter schools statewide. Its members include Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Ferris State University, Bay Mills Community College, Grand Valley State University, Lake Superior State University, Northern Michigan University, Oakland University, Saginaw Valley State University and Wayne Regional Education Service Agency.

Gov. Granholm’s letter says that because charter schools are a district unto themselves, "there is a missing link in our chain of accountability that compromises our ability to move these schools to higher levels of performance."

Dan Quisenberry, executive director of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, disagrees.

"It’s an additional link, not a missing link," he said. "These colleges have worked extremely hard to support the academic performance of charter schools and there are numerous examples of testing, alignment and curriculum analysis."

Quisenberry said even the negative aspect of charter school performance is a positive for the overall movement.

"These authorizers have intervened and restructured, up to and including closure," he said. "How much more involved can they be?"

Gov. Granholm’s letter points out two for-profit management companies that run 11 of the 39 charter schools failing to make AYP. Leona Group, based in East Lansing, saw six of 19 charter schools it manages fall short of AYP. Kelly Updike, communications director for Leona, said 13 Leona schools did make AYP, up from seven in 2004.

"We welcome the level of accountability the governor is talking about and we are proud of it," Updike said. "It is our hope the same level of accountability is provided for all public education."

Quisenberry points to the Walter French Academy in Lansing, a charter school formerly managed by the Leona Group, as evidence that charter school authorizers take responsibility and accountability seriously.

"Central Michigan University invested significant resources in that school for eight years," he said. "Today, that school doesn’t exist."

Gov. Granholm’s office declined to comment on why university authorizers were singled out, but did give Michigan Education Report a copy of an Aug. 26 letter she sent to Mike Flanagan, Michigan’s superintendent of public instruction.

The letter thanked Flanagan for sharing data regarding the AYP results of Michigan’s conventional public schools, but did not address charter schools authorized by public school districts or intermediate school districts. Gov. Granholm goes on to say the Department of Education should focus on the lowest-performing schools and work with them to put new improvement plans in place.

"We must insist on immediate change that will make a difference," the letter says. "In addition to helping us give credit where credit is due, this information lets us know where we need to focus our resources and our attention to improve academic performance in our schools."

Quisenberry suggests the governor look no further than charter schools to find out how to make those changes.

"Charters are an excellent model for what the federal law requires all public schools to do," he said.