How charter schools have changed Michigan education

An exploration of the history and changing nature of charter schools in Michigan, through the eyes of the universities which charter them most often.
When is a public school not really a public school?

When it's a charter public school--a hybrid institution on the rise in Michigan that blends the venerated tradition of quality public education for all young people with nontraditional, even unorthodox, methods developed by some of the sharpest thinkers in private industry and higher education. At base, the charter school movement's goal is to enhance educational choice and broaden opportunity for a diverse cross-section of students, particularly those in struggling urban public school districts.

"Students deserve a choice in their education," says William "Bill" Pistulka, Northern Michigan University's charter schools officer. "Geography shouldn't automatically determine which school you go to."

According to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, Michigan is home to nearly 400 charter public schools--and nearly 150,000 charter school students as of last year. That's a significant fraction of the state's total student population. New charter schools are coming online every year, creating new opportunities for kids and parents in underperforming districts--earning Michigan some note as a leader in education, while coming under fire from other angles.

How did we get here, and what can we expect from Michigan's charter school network in the future?

Origins of Michigan's Charter School Movement

The charter schools concept slowly gained traction among social scientists and academic theorists in the 1970s. But it didn't really enter the mainstream until 1988, when the American Federation of Teachers formally endorsed the idea. The thinking was simple: Many public school districts weren't meeting parents', administrators' and lawmakers' expectations, even as poverty and geography kept millions of students tied to failing schools. The problem was particularly acute in larger cities, like Detroit, Grand Rapids and Flint.

For years, "there was a sense that urban [public] school districts were failing their students," says Tim Wood, head of Grand Valley State University's charter school office. "Prior to charter schools, parents didn't have any other options" if they couldn't afford private or parochial school tuition.

In 1991, Minnesota passed the first laws permitting the creation and public funding of charter schools. Michigan, under Governor John Engler (considered the father of the movement here), followed in 1993. Michigan's first schools were open for business by 1995.

Marquette is home to one of those early public charter schools, North Star Academy, which began life as an alternative high school, then was chartered by Northern Michigan University in 1997. It's still going strong today as a K-12 nonprofit overseen by a school board.

Oversight, Accountability, and the Role of Higher Education

To ensure a uniform, quality educational experience, Michigan's charter school laws required every new academy to have an "authorizer." By statute, only state universities, community colleges, intermediate school districts and local school districts can serve as authorizers. These entities approve applications from prospective charter school operators and serve as gatekeepers for state funds earmarked for approved operators--a flat, per-student fee, currently just north of $7,000--but don't use any of their own money to support their schools.

Michigan's charter school statutes delineate an oversight and accountability structure that parallels that of traditional public schools. Basically, an authorizer is charged with big-picture oversight and required to hold accountable each school in its portfolio, but isn't expected to get involved in day-to-day operations under normal circumstances.

School operations are typically handled by local or national for-profit or non-profit entities that specialize in charter education, with direct oversight by a charter school board. The authorizer and school boards agree to binding contracts outlining fiscal and academic goals and expectations, repeated violation of which can result in charter revocation. Charter academies close fairly often: Grand Valley State currently has about 70 schools in its portfolio; since the mid-1990s, it has closed 15.

To hold each school accountable, the authorizer reviews financial statements and test scores, sends representatives to board meetings, and audits the school's compliance with various state and federal statutes (such as free/reduced lunch and Title IX).

"In Michigan, charter schools are run by the school boards of each school... and operate independently of the authorizer, once granted a charter contract," says Geoff Larcom, executive director of media relations at Eastern Michigan University. "EMU's relationship with its 11 schools is not unlike the Michigan Department of Education's [relationship] to public schools."

Eastern Michigan is one of nearly a dozen state universities involved in the local charter school movement. In fact, Michigan's state universities authorize the lion's share of the state's charter schools--between 80 and 90 percent, depending on the year.

According to Grand Valley State's Wood, the vast majority of Michigan's charter schools serve economically disadvantaged areas. And, due to simple math, most of these schools are found in the state's urban cores.

"Although every situation is different, the typical student population [in an academy applying for authorization] tests about one to three grade levels behind the state averages for reading and math, is about 80 percent of color, and has a free or reduced lunch qualification rate of at least 70 percent," says Wood.

The obvious and overwhelming struggles of low-income urban districts attract even the farthest-flung authorizers. Though Northern Michigan University's first charters opened in rural areas with high Native American populations--the Hannahville Potawatomi Reservation's Nah Tah Wahsh Public Charter Academy and the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Band's Bahweting Anishnabe Public School Academy were early success stories--most of the Marquette-based university's schools are now found in more populous downstate communities, like Pontiac, Saginaw and Detroit.

It's not surprising, then, that Michigan's state universities see the authorization and oversight of charter schools as part and parcel of a broader mission of public service--a foundational tenet of public education at any level. "Ultimately, it boils down to altruism," says Grand Valley State's Wood. "We have a responsibility to provide Michigan families with more choice in education, no matter where they live."

Caps and Controversies

After an initial burst of activity in the mid-to-late 1990s, the state of Michigan imposed a moratorium on new charter school authorizations--or, more accurately, a limit on the number of active charters permitted statewide. Though new schools still came online to fill voids left by academies closed due to poor financial or academic performance, the total school count stayed steady at around 150 through the 2000s.

"The goal of the cap was to take a step back and allow time to study [charter academies'] outcomes" relative to traditional public schools, says Northern Michigan's Pistulka.

The state legislature finally voted to lift the cap in late 2011, producing a flood of new applications and openings during the next few years.

The flurry led to renewed scrutiny--and a bit of a backlash. Critics of Michigan's charter school system pointed to a Detroit Free Press exposé that uncovered lax oversight, financial waste and poor performance at some of the state's charter schools.

In particular, some of the state's for-profit charter school operators, including well-regarded outfits like National Heritage Academies, are reticent to break out how they spend their money.

As private entities, for-profit operators aren't legally required to disclose most employees' salaries or release detailed balance sheets. And some out-of-state operators charge authorizers hefty upfront fees to build out new networks. KIPP, a high-performing outfit based in Texas, levies a flat $5 million fee when entering a new market. That's enough to raise some taxpayers' eyebrows, even when there's a high likelihood of improved educational outcomes down the line. KIPP doesn't operate any schools in Michigan at the moment.

These issues have led some higher education institutions to take a pass on the charter school movement altogether. Western Michigan University has long been on the sidelines, for instance, and has no plans to authorize schools in the future. And though the initial controversy around charter schools has since dissipated, lingering concerns about the movement's political popularity have kept Michigan's three largest public universities--the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State--out of the game as well. Unlike other state universities, these three institutions have popularly elected, not governor-appointed, trustees. They'd rather not stir up campaign controversy over the charter school issue.

Doing Right by Michigan's Children

For higher education institutions that do authorize charter schools, high standards and thorough oversight is key. Increasingly, that means placing a premium on results--and on operators with the ability to deliver.

For instance, Grand Valley State no longer accepts applications from so-called "mom and pop" operators, typically concerned parents looking to found and operate alternative schools on their own. Though many mom-and-pop operators prove just as adept at running charter schools as larger, more established organizations, there's simply too much risk involved, says Wood. Instead, Grand Valley focuses solely on attracting national operators with proven track records.

"We have a rigorous application process for new schools that includes a comprehensive review by a panel of content area experts and other due diligence," adds Brad Wever, director of public policy at Central Michigan University. "CMU is looking for [operator] applicants that can articulate a promising vision, provide a quality educational program, and propose a sound business plan, including including demonstrated need and the ability to implement a high-quality school."

Authorizers also need to make sure they're opening charter schools in areas that need them most. Grand Valley State's Wood notes some of his employer's first charter schools, opened back in the 1990s, shared student populations with high-performing traditional public schools.

"Some of those schools remain in our portfolio today," he explains. "But our standards have changed over the years, and we likely wouldn't authorize them today." In other words, whatever marginal benefit might be achieved by handing out a new charter in an affluent, high-performing district likely isn't worth the cost.

On the other end of the spectrum, authorizers working in the hardest-hit districts need to make sure there are--and will continue to be--enough students to support new schools. According to Northern Michigan's Pistulka, this is a particularly pressing issue in places like Saginaw and Detroit, where student populations have declined precipitously.

"We need to be prudent about opening in districts with declining populations," he says. Northern has no plans to accept new applications until late 2016, partly because many come from areas where population declines have yet to stabilize.

Larger authorizers, notably Central and Grand Valley State, haven't totally turned off the taps to their charter school pipelines. But they're clearly slowing down. According to Wever, Central is opening just one new charter academy this fall, with just three openings under consideration for fall 2016--and approval for those, which would come in early 2016, is far from assured.

Meanwhile, Grand Valley State has four openings scheduled for fall 2016. It's too early to look beyond next year, says Wood.

As the rate of new openings falls, Michigan's charter school authorizers are focused on supporting and improving schools in their portfolios. According to Wood, Grand Valley's charter school office flags academies that fall behind on key academic or management metrics. Flagged academies receive extra attention based on their needs: Low reading scores warrant regular visits from remedial reading teams, while schools with poor teaching outcomes receive "data-driven classroom management support," says Wood.

Other authorizers have similar protocols. Though Central's high application standards and rigorous approval process boost its portfolio's overall quality, its charter school office isn't afraid to make drastic changes. Closing chronically underperforming schools is always an option, says Wever, but it's not ideal in many situations due to the often dramatic impacts on kids and parents.

Instead, Central prefers "reconstitution," or drastic changes to a school's curriculum, oversight and day-to-day management. During reconstitution, Central might replace an academy's entire board of directors, bring in a new management company, and restructure management roles and personnel--totally changing how the school is run. Indeed, Wever encourages people to look at each newly reconstituted school as a blank slate.

"The raw [opening and closing] numbers don't always tell the real story," says Wever. "When you walk into a reconstituted school, you walk into the same building with the same school district code--but it's a new school in every other way."

"We're continually looking at how to improve performance and enhance choice without negatively impacting students, parents and communities," he adds.
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