by James N. Goenner
"Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended
to; convinced that on this good sense we may rely with the most security for the
preservation of a due degree of liberty."
-Thomas Jefferson, 1787
Americans instinctively realize that our nation's future depends upon a well educated
citizenry, but recent polls suggest that confidence in the traditional public schools is
flagging. Michigan parents who share Jefferson's vision of a nation of free and virtuous
citizens have begun to turn toward the charter schools movement to help them in their
quest to teach their children the values of good citizenship.
Charter schools-or public school academies as they are called in Michigan-are
independent public schools that operate under a performance contract called a charter. A
charter is simply a written agreement, such as the Magna Carta of 1215 that granted the
English certain political and civil liberties under the monarchy.
The state legislature passed charter school legislation in 1993, making Michigan the
ninth state to enact such a law. Today, 33 states plus the District of Columbia have
charter school laws. Michigan's legislation empowers the boards of local and intermediate
school districts and community colleges and state universities to grant educational
The key characteristics of charter schools are that they are
Public schools governed by publicly appointed boards;
Free: They do not charge tuition;
Open to all: Official lotteries are conducted when applications outnumber seats;
Required to use certified teachers;
Required to administer state-mandated student assessment exams; and
Subject to the same health and safety codes as other public schools.
Free to Try
The teams that develop and operate charter schools start from scratch by defining a
shared educational philosophy or vision. They have the flexibility to shape each aspect of
the school and its programs, pulling ideas from education experts throughout the world.
Michigan is fortunate to have a healthy mix of companies that manage charter schools
and community groups consisting of parents, teachers, and business leaders who want to
start their own schools. Several Detroit community leaders are launching charter schools
as a way to rescue the children in their neighborhoods from lives of desperation. For
example, the Colin Powell Academy, founded by the Rev. Ellis Smith, is located in
Michigan's economically poorest zip code.
Charter schools are also helping to revitalize all schools in Michigan. Many
superintendents are quietly saying that the competition from charter schools has provided
them with the necessary leverage they need to implement change in their districts.
In Lansing, for example, five charter schools opened recently and attracted hundreds of
students. The migration of students from the Lansing district prompted the mayor and the
district to form a blue ribbon panel to discuss how to improve the school system, and
their recommendations are now being implemented. Positive responses like this will
continue as the charter school movement flourishes.
Perhaps due to their novelty, charter schools are under intense political and
regulatory scrutiny. They must meet the demands of parents and students while proving
their value to taxpayers. Charter school leaders must be diligent at record keeping and
documenting their compliance with various and often stringent local, state, and federal
Unfortunately, Michigan's charter school law has not yet been able to substantially
free charter schools from the mind-numbing bureaucracy that has plagued the public school
system for years. Above and beyond compliance with the rules and regulations governing
school districts, charter schools must also meet results-oriented performance objectives
covering educational goals, curriculum standards, and assessment measures.
At Central Michigan University, we are working to streamline the regulatory process,
reducing duplication between state agencies and using information technology to allow
charter school staffs to spend their time with children rather than piles of paperwork.
Charter schools are also prohibited from levying property taxes, which means that
taxpayers do not have to face complex millage or bond proposals to fund new charter school
construction. Being limited to the state foundation grant-approximately $5,550 per
student-means that charter schools must be good stewards of their public dollars. Without
taxing authority, the only way charter schools can stay in existence is by offering
quality programs that are attractive to parents and students.
Many of the 107 Michigan charter schools that operated last year boast lengthy waiting
lists-some a thousand students strong. Their success has caused education professionals,
parents, and community and business leaders to line up to compete for the few remaining
charters available through state universities. The law currently limits the number of
charters issued by state universities to 125 in 1998 and 150 thereafter.
Projections indicate that 135 charter schools will be fully operational this fall: more
than 100 licensed by state universities, a few by local school districts and intermediate
school districts, and only one by a community college. Collectively, these schools will
serve more than 30,000 students, or 1.8 percent of Michigan's 1.7 million schoolchildren.
Charter schools offer the opportunity to improve American education by infusing the
public education system with a degree of competition and market forces. The standards and
accountability of all schools will improve because parents are able to exercise choice
before sending their children into a classroom.
Michigan citizens remember well how the ailing domestic automobile industry was quickly
transformed when persistent foreign competition from Europe and Japan taught American
consumers to expect excellence. Charter schools help ensure that the same miracle can and
will occur in our public schools. Indeed, for Jefferson's vision to prevail, it must.
James N. Goenner is director of Central Michigan University's Charter Schools
Office and former president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.