Charter Schools Don’t Need More Michigan Department of Education "Oversight"

Gov. Granholm and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins are quietly sabotaging Michigan’s charter schools. Couching their actions as concern over charter school "accountability," Granholm and Watkins are asking the Legislature to take $1 million dollars a year away from charters and give it to the Michigan Department of Education for expanded "oversight" of charter schools. The truth is charter schools already are more accountable to those who really matter — parents — than traditional public schools.

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In a manner that typifies how politicians often give priority to the politics of educating children over actually educating them, Granholm is refusing to sign into law Senate Bill 393, a bill that would increase the number of charter schools that can be authorized by Michigan universities from 150 to 350, until she gets expanded "oversight."

Because the 70,000 students who attend charter schools in Michigan take their $6,700 per-pupil funding with them, the education establishment resents charters. Since it has been unable to kill them outright, its goal has shifted to one of discrediting and undermining them. Granholm and Watkins know the best way to do this is to employ one of government’s most time-tested methods of killing innovation and competition: government oversight.

The ploy is preposterous given that there wouldn’t be a decades-old movement for education reform — or a charter school movement, for that matter — if the MDE were adequately overseeing traditional public schools. Despite having an enormous payroll of 260 employees and a budget of $114 million, two recent gaffes provide the latest examples of the department’s missteps.

The MDE recently "misinterpreted" the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act and erroneously categorized 540 failing schools as not being required to implement various corrective actions because they made the Act’s required "adequate yearly progress" for one year. But the Act clearly states that failing schools must make such progress for two years in a row. The feds informed the state that their interpretation was incorrect and that the 540 schools — along with 216 undisputed others — are indeed subject to the corrective actions until they make the required progress for a second year in a row. It is noteworthy that no such "misinterpretation" has been reported in any other state.

Second, schools are still waiting on the MDE to provide last year’s Michigan Educational Assessment Program scores, which are several months late. The MDE’s failure to get MEAP scores tallied and reported leaves superintendents, principals and teachers to plan instruction for the start of school without any benchmark on their students’ performance, and most crucially, without the information necessary to determine which schools can come off the failing list.

In a pitch to legitimize the proposal to expand charter oversight, MDE spokesman T. J. Bucholz recently told Michigan Information and Research Services, a daily capitol news service, that, "In order for charters to be part of the same fabric [as traditional public schools], we’ve got to be knitting with the same yarn."

While this may be a nice turn of phrase, the truth is that charter schools were never intended to be "part of the same fabric" as regular public schools. The whole point of the charter school law was to create an entirely new school model that would be free from the bureaucratic swamp in which traditional public schools are mired.

Charter schools have done quite well under "authorizers," boards that approve their creation and provide subsequent oversight. In a June 2003 study entitled, "Charter School Authorizing: Are States Making the Grade?" the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an independent think-tank, gave Michigan a "B" for the overall work of authorizers in supervising charter schools, a grade that ranked Michigan 8th best out of 23 states and the District of Columbia. Even when factoring in the "C" Michigan received for its lackluster political accommodation of charter schools, the state still came away with an overall "B-." Nothing in the report so much as hinted that expansion of state oversight could improve charter schools.

Instead of derailing charter school creativity and innovation, the Legislature needs to recognize that the "greater oversight" campaign is aimed at destroying charter schools and that charter schools already have all the accountability they need. Not only are two-thirds of them managed by professional management companies, each school has a board of directors, which in turn must satisfy its authorizer or the school’s charter may be revoked, thereby closing the school — a level of accountability to which traditional public schools have never come close to being subjected.

Ultimately, the accountability of Michigan’s charter schools has less to do with authorizers, reams of regulations, MEAP scores or oversight by a state bureaucracy than it does with the fact that unlike traditional public schools, not a single student is assigned to attend a charter school on the basis of the child’s zip code. This single fact — that parents can withdraw their children if they are not happy with a charter school’s performance — creates a level of market-based accountability the public school system couldn’t match if the entire state workforce were put on the job.

It would be a great day for Michigan students and parents if the Michigan Department of Education could boast that its traditional public schools are as accountable to parents as Michigan’s charter schools. But it won’t happen, because accountability isn’t what traditional public schools really want. And when they start demanding "accountability" you can be sure of one thing: They’re demanding it of somebody else.

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Brian Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute based in Midland, Mich. He is the author of recent essays on tax-funded laptops for sixth-graders and school marketing.