Despite Poor Results, Some Charters Expanding in Michigan

This year, more than thirty new charter schools will begin operating across Michigan. While some are operated by excellent companies with proven track records of high-performing schools both in Michigan and around the country – National Heritage Academies and Cornerstone Schools among them – there are several whose record in charters has been questionable. The Education Trust-Midwest is a group that has steadfastly supported the expansion of high-performing charter schools in the region, but is now calling for a rule that would make operators with already existing struggling charters to improve their quality before they are authorized to open more schools that could be destined to underperform.

The Education Trust has put together a list of the charters given permit to operate this fall, and it shows that many of them have either a poor track record or have a record that makes it impossible to determine the quality of their past charter school efforts. According to the press release accompanying the release of the list, only 22 of the charter operators currently running schools in Michigan could be considered well-performing, with 25 having track records that are questionable or poor.

This is consistent with years of research showing that, on balance, charter schools in the state are as uneven in quality as our traditional public schools.

Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press writes that a new law designed to improve the quality of charter schools in the state is missing the provision that would have made it impossible for charter operators that have a poor record of performance in the state or elsewhere to open new schools.

Some say Michigan should follow the lead of states such as Delaware, Minnesota and Connecticut, which have established strict guidelines for those who issue charter school contracts. Minnesota, for instance, requires authorizers to go through a strict approval and monitoring process.

The lawmakers who drafted and supported the legislation to lift the cap on charter schools in the state explained that they were just giving in to something the taxpayers clearly wanted: more choice when it comes to educating their children. The need for this option is clear in the increasing number of children now taking advantage of opportunities to be found outside the traditional public schools.

Michigan has been experimenting with school choice since 1994 when the first 12 charters began operating in the state. The schools served only 1,200 students, a number that has grown 100-fold in less than 20 years. This year, Michigan is hope to 277 charter schools with an expected enrollment in excess of 115,000 students.

The growth is expected to continue with the signature of Governor Rick Snyder on a bill that increases the maximum number of charter school contracts that could be issued by sponsoring organizations such as universities or community colleges from 150 to 300. That number is scheduled to go up to 500 by December 31st, 2014.

But Western Michigan University researcher Gary Miron said Michigan not only needs a cap on charters that can open, but a moratorium as well.

“We do not have quality assurances in place, therefore we should stop expanding,” he said. “Right now we’re splitting limited resources across two struggling systems.”

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