When the state auditor general began scrutinizing Central Michigan University’s charter school procedures, opponents of charter schools salivated over the prospect of a negative report. Unable to thwart reform of public education in the legislature or the courts, they hoped for revelations from an audit that they could easily spin into a death knell for charter schools. What they got was a mixed message that, taken as a whole, points toward the need for more reform, not less.

In his 58-page report released on October 3, Michigan Auditor General Thomas H. McTavish focused on CMU’s charter schools office and its documentation and monitoring of 13 schools chartered by the university between 1994 and 1996. To date, CMU has authorized a total of 46, or nearly half, of the 105 operating charter schools in the state.

It is important to note that the audit was not about the actual performance of the schools or what their customers think of them; it was, however, substantially about paperwork and reporting requirements.

On the positive side of the ledger, the audit found that the university was "generally effective and efficient in authorizing" charters and that it "encourages prospective applicants to be creative and innovative in meeting the diverse needs of their students." Its offices were also deemed "effective and efficient in maintaining information on and providing assistance to users interested in" starting or supporting charter schools.

On the negative side, the audit identified a need for the university to "substantially improve its internal control structure" for monitoring the schools it charters and the policies and boards of directors that directly govern them. And, the report noted, various reporting forms and certificates need to be improved, which probably means that they need to be made even more burdensome, picayune, and indecipherable than they already are.

Many of the concerns expressed by the auditor general, while perfectly legitimate, were the natural result of the newness of the charter school phenomenon and uncertainties in the law, and have already been remedied by the university. Moreover, unless you’re creating cookie cutter schools that all look alike, you can’t read from just one recipe. Charter schools are meant to break the mold by being different and innovative. As a pioneer in bringing charter schools into being, CMU has had to strike a balance between its responsibilities as a monitor and the need to allow schools the freedom to experiment. Where it has fallen short, it is working to improve.

The auditor general’s report will serve a useful purpose if it prompts changes that strengthen the chartering process without burdening it with counterproductive rules. To the extent the report translates into paperwork and requirements that don’t educate children better, it will work against real education reform.

In the meantime, the larger lessons from Michigan’s three-year experiment with charter schools are these: charters are held to a higher standard than other public schools; they are extremely popular with the audience that should count the most (parents); and a new wave of reform is needed to shake up the education establishment that opposes them.

Chartering entities such as CMU must certify that the schools they authorize comply with "all applicable law." Every other school in Michigan must comply with all applicable law too, but nobody has to certify it for them. It sometimes takes a probing press to uncover problems in public schools, such as the Detroit News’ 1996 revelations that "hundreds" of children go home sick every year because of sanitary violations in Detroit public school cafeterias.

Charter schools surpass the accountability standards of every other public school in a critically important way: They are schools of choice. No child is compelled to attend one. The fact that thousands of Michigan children are on charter school waiting lists says a lot about what the customers think. As Jim Goenner of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies put it after the audit’s release, "We’re going to put more faith in parents’ day-to-day oversight than we’ve ever put into a piece of paper in a file cabinet."

The education establishment itself, from the Department of Education down to local school districts, should do its part to make the charter experiment work for children. They should be helping to develop the best possible and least intrusive monitoring mechanisms. They should be working to reduce onerous regulation—from either government or unions—that afflict both charter and traditional public schools. That includes the requirement that if a school district charters a school, that new school is automatically bound by the union contract and work rules negotiated for the district.

There are more than 600 entities in Michigan that have the power to authorize a charter school—the state universities, community colleges, intermediate school districts and local school districts—but less than five percent have done so. Instead of standing idle, defending the status quo, or carping about competition, they should become advocates and practitioners of deregulation and educational choice.

Charter schools are blazing new trails for thousands of Michigan children. Some may fail, as any school should if it doesn’t do the job. Their very existence is prompting many traditional public schools to improve to be competitive. They should be nurtured and encouraged.