Guiding Quality Growth in the Charter Sector

Workshop sessions focus on developing successful new schools

New School Development Workshop Series session held in Grand Rapids

In Michigan, it's far from easy to get a new public charter school off the ground.

Charters help students learn more on average, and parents continue to seek out these tuition-free options. Yet the number of charter schools plateaued five years ago at around 300, shortly after the Michigan Legislature lifted the statewide charter cap in late 2011.

Not content with current trends, some education leaders are striving to further improve the charter sector by focusing on schools that exist only as ideas today. The Mt. Pleasant-based National Charter Schools Institute is partnering with one of the state's largest charter authorizers, Grand Valley State University, to help grow and improve the next crop of new public charter schools in the state. Their six-part workshop series covers everything from the current legal environment and how to secure facilities and funding to developing an effective educational program.

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The sessions run from July to January in both Detroit and Grand Rapids, to reach potential applicants in both southeastern and western Michigan. A combined total of 18 participants took part in the first sessions. Some participants are new to the game, while others are looking to sharpen their skills. The program is most valuable for smaller independent operators rather than larger management companies.

"It's like going on a journey," said NCSI president and CEO Jim Goenner, one of the workshop's facilitators. "You could go on a journey and figure out how to navigate the trail by yourself, or you could work with a seasoned guide who knows where the good places are and where there are the places to avoid."

Though the event is hosted by GVSU, participants who seek a new charter can submit their application to any institution that serves as a charter school authorizer. Once they realize what is involved, though, some may change their minds. For example, many participants may not realize that Michigan charter schools are subject to nearly all the same rules and regulations as the state's other public schools.

"While we're hoping that we're going to come out with some great applicants and some great schools, we're also hoping that part of the value is to help people understand that this is more than they bargained for and that it's not worth the time and the effort and the sacrifice it requires," Goenner said.

Money is another large obstacle. Not only can Michigan charters not tap local tax dollars, but they also have been unable to get federal startup grants for the past three years. According to Goenner, applicants "either have to have deep pockets or a benefactor" to secure facilities and hire a staff before the school opens its doors and receives funding from the state. Starting a school usually takes 18 months. "It's not an easy process," he said.

Workshop organizers want to see stronger charter applications submitted, though attending the sessions does not necessarily commit someone to the process. But organizers hope that some participants overcome the challenges and open a successful charter school in fall 2020.

"Being able to be a public school, to educate kids, and the success that comes with those kids having a learning environment that meets their needs is really a priceless reward," Goenner said.

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