Charter Schools in Michigan: Unfinished Business

Who said, "Public education is a monopoly, and monopolies don't work."? No, it wasn't free market economist Milton Friedman or former president Ronald Reagan. It was Governor John Engler, kicking off the recent and historic school reform debate in a speech to a Joint Session of the Michigan Legislature on October 5, 1993.

Politicians often live and die by their rhetoric. John Engler spared none that day, referring to the "educational gulag" and urging legislators to "tear down the Berlin Wall" that prevents parental choice in education.

With the first round in the ongoing school reform debate behind us, it's fair to ask, Are we any closer to a free market in education than we were last October? Yes, says the Governor, citing the passage of, in his words, "the nation's most expansive charter school legislation." Will this legislation really encourage the creation of new school options for parents and thereby act as a spur to improvement in every Michigan school?

The U.S. Department of Education defines charter schools as "publicly sponsored autonomous schools, substantially deregulated and free of direct administrative control by the government." The key word here is "autonomous." The idea is to grant teachers and other educational entrepreneurs greater freedom to create and operate new public schools in exchange for more direct accountability to public authorities and taxpayers. A "charter" is, in effect, a performance-based contract: if the school does not perform up to standards set in its charter, the charter can be revoked and the school shut down.

Charter schools represent a well-intentioned, albeit limited, effort to introduce market forces into public education. Implemented properly, they can begin to erode the monopoly structure of public education and allow competition to stimulate quality improvements. In states such as Minnesota, California and Colorado, charter school legislation is causing school boards and superintendents to become more responsive to the concerns of parents and teachers, simply because those parents and teachers now have alternatives.

In many respects, Governor Engler is right: Michigan's legislation does achieve important breakthroughs in de-monopolizing public education. For the first time anywhere in the United States, public authorities other than local school districts and state boards of education can authorize the creation of new, public schools.

State public universities, in particular, appear to enjoy wide-open authority to charter schools anywhere in the state; all it takes is one friendly university board of trustees. Moreover, there is no limit on the number of schools which can be chartered nor on the length of the terms of their charters. And, apart from local school district authorization, charter school employees are not required to be unionized.

In one very important respect, however, the legislation falls short of that of other states. It appears that charter schools, because they are defined as "school districts" for purposes of eligibility for state funding, will be subject to all of the same state laws that govern districts in the areas of curriculum, assessment, accreditation and reporting. As a result, charter schools in Michigan may not enjoy sufficient independence for the Governor's prediction to be realized of 200 new schools by the end of 1995.

Michigan's legislation suffers from the absence of a provision for the granting of general or even specific regulatory waivers to charter schools, perhaps the key element in every other state's legislation. Recall, "autonomy" is the key word. Without autonomy, few people will see any purpose in trying to create new public schools that are simply clones of the existing ones.

Potential charter school sponsors are also hampered by provisions which limit their operations to one physical site and which require that charters be issued "on a competitive basis." It's not inconceivable that some sponsors may have to spend months or years in court establishing that there is indeed a "market" for their services.

It's probably not too late to make improvements in the law. Key legislative leaders and the Governor himself have suggested that the education reform debate is far from over. The legislature should give high priority to amending the charter school legislation to provide, if not a blanket regulatory waiver, at least a specific procedure for granting such waivers, and to repeal the single-site and competitive contract provisions.

If the legislature acts promptly, it can assure potential charter school sponsors that their dreams and hard work will not be thwarted by suffocating rules from Lansing.