Thirty years ago today, Minnesota broke ground by adopting the nation’s first charter school law. Today more than three million students across the nation — including nearly 150,000 in Michigan — attend one of these choice-driven, independently governed public schools.
Even as the Year of Educational Choice increases access to private options in many states, public charter schools retain a prominent role as havens of opportunity for many students. That is especially true in our state, where charters are a well-established part of the education landscape. Michigan has one of the oldest and strongest charter school laws in the nation. It also has one of the highest rates of charter enrollment, thanks in part to a 2011 law that removed the statewide cap on the number of these schools.
Michigan charters disproportionately serve low-income and racial minority students, whose families choose them as higher-performing, more responsive and safer alternatives to their residentially assigned school. Quality research on the academic effectiveness of Michigan’s charter sector remains limited but largely positive, even though they take in significantly less overall funding per student than surrounding districts.
Since Michigan’s charter schools celebrated their silver anniversary more than two years ago, they have only strengthened by overcoming their share of challenges. In fall 2019, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used her veto pen to exempt charter schools from a funding increase available to all other public schools, at a loss of $35 million. And for the third straight year, she is seeking to cut funds for online charter schools, even after they took in 35% more students this academic year. Many parents selected these schools after growing frustrated with other virtual learning programs offered by their local schools during the pandemic.
None of these attempts to undercut Michigan charter schools has succeeded. Parents and educators who choose these schools rallied to restore the $35 million, and so far have sufficient legislative support to ensure that the funding formula does not penalize them for choosing online charters.
The experience with pandemic schooling has only fortified their cause. Support for parental choice and the need for effective education options has grown stronger in recent months. While the ability to measure academic progress has been hampered by the recent lack of standardized test results, the state’s charter schools showed signs of going strong through the challenges of remote instruction. Perhaps most telling, the state’s charter school enrollment grew this school year, even as Michigan saw tens of thousands of students leave the K-12 public system.
The experience of charter schools during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that families’ desire for educational alternatives is both durable and growing. In response, Michigan leaders should make sure students have access to the fullest range of opportunities possible.
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