Selected readings on US charter schools
Supported by tax dollars, charter schools enroll students tuition-free as an alternative to traditional public schools.
Lyn Sperry had worked in traditional public schools in Louisiana before returning to her native Michigan and joining Countryside Academy charter school in Benton Harbor in 1997.
“In traditional public schools, we did not have the ability to go outside the box, so to speak,” Sperry, lead administrator at Countryside, said. “With charter schools there is a lot more capability for innovation, to take good ideas and see them through.”
Proponents hailed the charter school law as a giant step toward reforming education across the state.
“With charter schools, I predict nothing less than a renaissance of public education in Michigan,” Gov. John Engler declared on Jan. 18, 1994, as he signed the bill into law. “By the end of the century, I believe Michigan schools will be the envy of the world.”
That fall, 12 charter schools opened in Michigan, enrolling 1,200 students.
Today, nearly 300 charter schools operate in the state, with an enrollment of 140,000.
Those numbers are expected to grow, after Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation in 2011 that will eventually eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools in Michigan.
Millions in tax dollars and the future of thousands of students are at stake.
How have charter schools performed so far? It depends on who you talk to and what study you read. Some of the schools have excelled, while others have lagged, much like their public school counterparts.
Most experts agree that the results have been mixed, and they call for more stringent requirements on those who run charter schools.
The charter school bill was sponsored by then-state Sen. Dick Posthumus, who later served as Engler’s lieutenant governor and is now senior advisor to Gov. Snyder.
Posthumus gives the outcome high marks.
“I give it a B-plus or an A-minus,” Posthumus said of the results of charter school bill. “It’s not perfect. We need to continue to strive to find low-performing charter schools and close them down, as we need to find low-performing pubic schools and close them down or reform them.”
Posthumus said one of his goals in sponsoring the legislation was to provide parents, particularly low-income residents, with the opportunity to enroll their children in a high-performing school. He also wanted to encourage improvements in traditional schools through competition.
“In America, we have always believed that competition is the lifeblood of improving our society,” he said.
Case for innovation
Michigan was among the states to take the lead in establishing a foundation for charter schools, closely following the first charter school bill passed in Minnesota in 1991.
Today, there are 6,000 charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia, with a combined enrollment of 2.3 million students.
Last fall, 34 new charter schools opened in Michigan, and 12 closed or consolidated, bringing the statewide total to 298.
Dan Quisenberry, the president of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, notes such innovative schools as Washtenaw Technical Middle College in Ann Arbor, which lets students graduate with a high school diploma and a college degree at the same time, and Cornerstone Charter Health High School in Detroit, which in partnership with the Detroit Medical Center exposes students to health care careers.
Locally, charter schools include the Benton Harbor Charter School, Countryside Academy, Mildred Wells Preparatory Academy and The Dream Academy.
Teachers come to charter schools looking for the freedom to innovate, Countryside’s Sperry said.
“We have a lot of good teachers, they’re not here for the paycheck, they could make a lot more working somewhere else, but they feel here they are making a difference for the students, in the community and in family life,” Sperry said. “We have teachers who have come from other, more traditional schools, that wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
Charter schools have a “double layer of oversight” from the Michigan Department of Education and their authorizing institution, Sperry said.
Countryside’s authorizer is Central Michigan University, which she called “a leader in the charter school movement and the largest authorizer in Michigan.”
An authorizer will pull the plug on a low-performing charter school even before the state Department of Education, Sperry said. And once the authorizer withdraws, state funding stops.
Show me the money
Posthumus is not concerned that 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are being operated by for-profit companies, the highest percentage in the country.
Other observers are concerned that for-profit operators could put enrollment ahead of achievement. Others caution that charters can put pressure on already struggling districts.
Moody’s Investor Service, in a report titled “Charter Schools Pose Growing Risks for Urban Public Schools,” warned that charter schools can take away students and revenue away from some districts faster than the schools can reduce their costs.
Districts that are already under financial pressure are particularly at risk, the organization noted.
Schools also are at risk in states that emphasize educational choice, set few limits on growth of charters and provide “generous funding,” such as Michigan, Moody’s said.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy responded to Moody’s report by stating that charter schools receive $691 less per pupil in state and local funding, on average, than conventional school districts.
The center charged that 51 traditional public school districts, out of the state’s 545, were in deficit or were projected to be in a deficit in 2013. Only four of the 298 charter schools were in similar straits.
Some observers aren’t convinced that charter schools are using their funds effectively.
A 2012 paper co-written by University of Michigan education professor David Arsen posited that Michigan charter schools spend twice as much per pupil on administration and about 20 percent less on instruction than traditional public schools.
According to the report, Michigan charter schools spent about 47 percent of their operating budgets on instruction, compared to 60 percent for traditional public schools.
Charter schools on average spent 23 percent of their budgets on administration, compared to less than 10 percent for Michigan districts overall, the report said.
The average per-pupil revenue of Michigan’s charter schools in 2007-08 was $8,671, 3 percent below the average revenue for all the state’s school districts, which was $8,964.
Charter schools operated by for-profit firms were found to spend about $312 more per pupil on administration than other charter schools.
Charter schools pay a 3 percent fee per student paid to the charter school authorizer.
Quisenberry dismissed the findings as misleading, and said the important thing is whether expenditures translate into student achievement.
Arsen said charter school proponents had argued that traditional public schools were bloated bureaucracies that wasted money on administration – a claim he said his report refutes.
Forbes magazine reported that foreign investors are being enticed into investing in charter schools along with luxury hotels and ski resorts.
“Enterprising brokers have seen a golden opportunity to match cash-starved charter schools with cash-flush foreigners in investment deals that benefit both,” according to Reuters, as reported in Forbes.
Expanding the field
While some believe that school is still out on the effectiveness of charters, Michigan legislators have continued to promote the option.
Legislation signed by Gov. Snyder increased the number of charter contracts that could be issued by universities from 150 to 300 by the end of 2012, and to 500 by Dec. 31, 2014. There will be no limit after that.
There were powerful incentives to expand charter schools, beyond educational philosophies.
The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, held out $4.4 billion in federal money to the states that lifted their caps on the number of charter schools.
Among other changes approved by Snyder, the legislation exempted the property of a charter school from property taxes, and deleted a requirement that charter schools comply with a school district’s collective bargaining agreement.
Education Trust Midwest and others are concerned about what they perceive as a lack of safeguards and standards for entities entering the charter school field.
EdTrust looked at the 30 new charter schools that opened after the cap was lifted. They found that of 15 charter school operators who had a track record in the state, seven were running schools that were below the 33rd percentile in Michigan’s school ranking system.
“Some of the worst operators in the state are the ones that are growing the fastest,” EdTrust’s Arellano told the Huffington Post.
The National Association for Charter School Authorizers has a set of standards for green-lighting a charter school. Those standards have been adopted by 85 percent of charter authorizers in Michigan, including all members of the Michigan Association of Charter Authorizers.
Posthumus said one of the factors that distinguishes Michigan charter schools is that universities and community colleges are the authorizing agents, providing an additional level of oversight.
“The authorizing agents are more sensitive” to the performance of a charter school under their guidance, Posthumus said. “Their reputation is at stake.”
After 20 years, charter schools continue to exist in Michigan because they fill a niche in the educational spectrum, Sperry said.
“Charter schools exist because there is a need in the community in which they exist for something other than the ‘one size fits all’ traditional public school,” Sperry said.
Source: The Herald Palladium – by John Matuszak