Michigan's charter schools outperforming district school counterparts

Michigan's public charter schools outperform their district school counterparts when it comes to the percentage of students that graduate and go on to enroll in colleges and universities. That's in addition to helping Detroit's young students improve their math and reading test scores, according to a study from the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which represents charter schools throughout the state.

Eight of the top 10 ranked college preparatory schools in Detroit are charter schools, according to Michigan Department of Education data. Seventy-five and 76 percent of graduates of Detroit Edison Public School Academy and Universal Academy – the top two-ranked public charter schools – go on to pursue a college education, for instance. The two Detroit school district public schools that made the top 10 list – Renaissance and Cass Tech – have open enrollment policies, Ben DeGrow, director of Education Policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said.

Charter schools serve one of every 10 public school students statewide. Furthermore, they're the primary option for disadvantaged students, DeGrow said.

Unlike public district schools, most Detroit and Michigan charter schools have open enrollment policies – a student can reside anywhere in the city or state – and they are prohibited from discriminating when enrolling students. 

“All eight of the charter schools on the list are as likely as neighboring schools to serve low-income students,” DeGrow told Watchdog.org. “Michigan has a uniquely strict constitutional provision against public support for students who choose private education, so options there are very few. But Detroit Cristo Rey High School is an example of a Catholic school program that successfully caters to low-income families through its innovative corporate work-study program.”

Specifying the exact reasons why Michigan's charter schools are doing a better job of preparing students for higher education, and motivating them to enroll in a college or university requires some speculation, DeGrow said.

“We do know that charter schools can’t discriminate in what students they accept and are more likely to face stiff consequences if they don’t meet the same standards as district schools," he said. "In Detroit especially, the higher-performing schools are disproportionately in the charter sector, schools that aren’t caught up in the dysfunction and inefficiency that plagues so much of the regular district.

“The fact that eight of the top 10 schools in Detroit are charter schools doesn't necessarily indicate a direct cause-and-effect relationship between attending a charter school and enrolling in college. But more rigorous studies from Florida, one of charter schools and one of the tax-credit scholarship programs for low-income students both indicate that school choice boosts college enrollment.”

Charter schools are purposely designed to help set up students for success after high school. That includes less privileged students and those who decide to forego college and enter the workforce, Benny Moorehouse, vice president of communications for the Michigan Association of Public Schools Academies, told Watchdog.

“For students who have dreams of going to college, charter schools provide them with the academic focus and preparation they need to get there," he said. "At a college-prep charter high school, students often have a longer school day and a longer school year, as well as access to advanced placement classes and dual-enrollment opportunities." 

Detroit and Michigan charter schools also manage finances and administer their schools better than their public district school counterparts, according to recent research from the Mackinac Center. On average, Detroit charter schools raise and spend $5,000 less per student per year. There's a $2,000 per year disparity state-wide, DeGrow said.

Charter schools don't have access to local tax dollars to fund building projects; they have to pay for them out of their own, general funds. Generally speaking, that leaves them shortchanged given current rules, DeGrow said.

“While charters get the same per-student formula funding as most Michigan districts, other differences may arise from specialized grants distributed by the state and federal governments,” he said.

Detroit public schools raised $500 million for school repairs in 2009 via the sale of voter-approved bonds, DeGrow noted.

“Mismanagement and misspending has left many of the district's school buildings in deplorable condition," he said. "The city's charter schools have access to less money, but generally they have done a better job of providing safe and clean facilities.”

“Charter schools are on the bottom of the barrel when it comes to state funding, although the gap has been narrowing in recent years,” Moorehouse said. “By being more efficient and by creating schools that are truly focused around student needs, charter schools have been able to do more with less.”