Mission Creep

Resisting the temptation to meddle in the affairs of public charter schools is like sticking to that New Year’s resolution to cut a few calories and eat healthier. When you decide to have a salad for lunch instead of a cheeseburger, you cannot shred some cheese on top and then slather your lettuce and tomatoes with ranch dressing. After all that, you may as well just have the cheeseburger. This week, the state Board of Education discussed expanding the role of the Michigan Department of Education to allow it further regulatory authority over charter school authorizers. The result will likely be to limit public school academies’ autonomy to such an extent that there will be no discernable difference between them and conventional public schools.

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The MDE has a legitimate role in ensuring that no student suffers from abuse or neglect in school. Moreover, the MDE can help to monitor the responsible expenditure of public funds. In fact, charters already face extensive oversight, answering to their boards, their authorizers and the state superintendent. Ultimately, however, for the charter school movement to prove successful, these alternative schools need the freedom to do what they, not the MDE, feel is best for kids.

Education markets can only lead to quality educational opportunities when there is both choice and competition. In order for there to be choice, parents must have quality alternatives available. For competition to be legitimate, excessive barriers to entry into the market cannot interfere with supply.

To earn a charter — or operating contract — a potential public school academy must gain the approval of an authorizer, which itself has been authorized for this purpose by state law. In Michigan, authorizers include public universities, community colleges, K-12 school districts and intermediate school districts. In exchange for greater freedom from all of the regulatory burdens facing conventional public schools, authorized public school academies generally agree to meet stricter performance standards. Since charter public schools operate at public expense and are in the business of caring for children, it is reasonable to argue that they should go through a formal approval process before opening their doors. Thus, the first line of defense against particularly poor potential public school academies is that they must meet the standards of the authorizers. This process cannot be unduly restrictive, however, as innovative schools need the opportunity to enter the market.

The second and most important check on charter public school quality is parental choice. For parental choice to operate as a quality control mechanism over public school academies, we must assume two things. First, we must operate under the assumption that parents tend to know what is best for their children. Next, we must ensure that parents have information about the performance and attributes of the available schools. By helping to ensure the proper public reporting of charter and conventional public school characteristics, the MDE can play a role in supporting informed parental choices.

Parental choice operates as a quality control mechanism against public school academies of inferior quality because such institutions will ultimately go out of business if they are not providing quality educational programs. Supplied with information about school performance, the same parents, who had chosen a given charter public school as an alternative to the conventional public school, will no longer send their children to a low-quality school. Without students, inferior public school academies will fail, but it is this freedom for public school academies to fail which is precisely what drives them to perform and to respond to parental input.

Some state Board of Education members have stated that we cannot trust the authorizers to monitor everything about public school academies; fortunately, we don’t have to. According to the Center for Education Reform, 25 unsuccessful charters have closed in Michigan since 1993, when the movement began here. Whether it is because of the oversight of the authorizers or because of schools’ inability to meet parental standards, quality controls over public school academies appear to be operating with relative success.

For public school academies to be a viable educational alternative, the state Board of Education and the MDE need to stick to their diet. Governments, like waistlines, have a tendency to expand, but letting existing authorizers and parents act as quality control mechanisms is the only healthy way to preserve the quasi-market reform of public school academies, which approximately 100,000 students in Michigan have currently chosen to attend.


Marc Holley is a doctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform and an adjunct fellow with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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