Column: Charters thrive because parents choose them

Jim Goenner, for the Detroit News

When I was younger, I used to call the pioneering efforts of Michigan’s charter schools movement “The Michigan Miracle.” Having lived through the never ending political, legal and regulatory attacks opponents used to derail charters, it seemed like a miracle that they continued to exist — and were thriving.

The most important reason charters continue to thrive is simple — families are choosing them for their children’s education.

Chartering is fundamentally a strategy for making education work better for our kids and our communities. It’s what Harvard’s Clayton Christensen would call a “disruptive innovation.” The strategy doesn’t guarantee perfect schools. But it does provide opportunities for those who want to try something different and break away from the one-size-fits-all model of the past.

Chartering is a strategy that welcomes and encourages new ideas. It disrupts the outdated notion that there should only be one provider of public education per community and that students should be assigned to schools based on where they live.

Chartering is causing “the system” to think differently. It’s pushing education to move from an era of assignment to an era of choice. It’s a catalyst for disrupting and destroying the far too often reality that a student’s demography determines their destiny.

Being a charter school doesn’t guarantee academic excellence though. Promising ideas sometimes don’t work out the way they were intended. And sometimes good ideas are poorly implemented.

The charter strategy encourages schools to be more responsive and adaptive. It rewards results. And it holds schools that don’t perform to account — even if that means closing.

Imagine for a moment that charters didn’t exist. The options for Detroit families would be: pay for a private school, move to another district, or have your children assigned to the district that posted the worst test scores in America on the nation’s report card (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015.

Thankfully, the charter strategy does exist and is creating real opportunities for families. More than half of Detroit’s school children now attend a charter public school.

As a group, Michigan’s charters are substantially outperforming their district run counterparts. For example, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that on average, students in Michigan’s charter schools make larger learning gains in both reading and math. Results were even better in Detroit. Per the report: “These findings position Michigan among the highest performing charter school states CREDO has studied to date.”

More recently, researchers from the Skillman Foundation examined the 2017 M-STEP results and found charters to be doing twice as well as the district on many measures. Their analysis also shows that Detroit’s charter schools graduate a higher percentage of students than their district counterparts (89.9 percent vs. 78.2 percent), and their graduates are more likely to go on to college (47.5 percent vs 31.3 percent).

Still, there is much work to be done. Being twice as good as the worst performing urban district in America doesn’t exactly give one bragging rights.

But it does demonstrate that the smear campaign being waged against Michigan’s charter community is false.

While I don’t expect the critics to suddenly begin embracing charters as “The Michigan Miracle,” I do hope that they will stop with their smear campaign.

There are many lessons that can be learned from the charter strategy that would be beneficial for all schools and the “system.” And since it’s the season of miracles, let’s commit to working together to make the transformative power of a great education available to all students.

Jim Goenner, Ph.D., is the president & CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute.

Fixing Michigan’s Schools

This is part of a series of editorials and commentaries this school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along at detroitnews.com/opinion.