The Case for Choice
Charter schools in Michigan were created a generation ago in response to parental demands for free public educational choices. Each student is unique, with his or her own learning style, and families of all socioeconomic levels appreciate having the same learning options that once belonged only to the wealthy.
At its heart, educational choice is aimed at putting leadership back into the hands of parents. After all, it is they who know best what’s right for each of their children and will sense the learning environment that makes most sense, if only they have a variety of free public options available to them.
Without charters, such free public alternatives would not exist.
Charter schools are free, open to all, and subject to the same laws, rules and regulations as all other Michigan public schools. An entire generation of Michigan students has graduated from the public charter schools their parents selected for them.
About Michigan Charters
Charter schools and authorizers value student growth and achievement most of all, just like Michigan families do.
- We work hard to ensure the schools we authorize are preparing students with the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in a global economy.
- Students in charter schools are making faster academic gains and performing better than their traditional school district peers. This outcome is even more pronounced in Detroit.
Charter public schools focus on underserved students and are addressing the educational needs of the community.
- More than 71 percent of students in Michigan charter schools are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
- Nearly 67 percent of students belong to racial or ethnic minorities.
- Charter schools serve students with disabilities and English language learners. No student is turned away.
Charter schools are performing well and authorizers are holding them accountable, despite receiving less funding.
- On average, charter public schools receive $1,630 less per pupil than their traditional school counterparts.
Authorizer leadership fosters school and student success.
- MCCSA members have developed sophisticated systems for overseeing and supporting charter schools, including computer-adaptive testing models, automated compliance tools, and training programs for board members and administrators.
Michigan authorizers place tremendous importance on the role of charter school boards, which are ultimately responsible for the operation and performance of their schools.
- As public officials, charter school board members are required to take the constitutional oath of office and are charged with making important determinations about contracts, budgets and policy.
- Charter school boards face more accountability than their traditional school counterparts because the authorizer is ever-present, asking questions and ultimately having the authority to close schools that are unwilling or unable to make necessary changes.
- Michigan authorizers have developed model tools, training programs and online resources for ensuring board members are continually educated as they prepare to make critical decisions and hold their school accountable.
Michigan’s charter schools undergo a rigorous application and review process designed to ensure a strong academic and legal framework.
- We scrutinize all aspects of a school teams’ proposed management and operational structure, contractual provisions, and program offerings to ensure compliance and freedom from conflicts of interest.
Michigan law prohibits specifically identified family relationships between board members, individuals or entities that contract with the school and employees of the charter school.
- MCCSA members have policies and monitoring procedures that certify board member conflicts do not exist.
Myths and Facts
Public debate about education issues is healthy and important. For the debate to be effective, however, the facts have to be accurate.
Myth: Charter schools have less accountability than their traditional counterparts . . .
Many people believe charter schools are not subject to the same laws as their conventional K–12 peers (indeed, they are), that these schools are private or even religious in nature (they are not), and that they are beyond the reach of the government agencies that oversee public education in the state (again, not true).
In Michigan, charter public schools operate in much the same way as all other public schools. They are free, open to all, and operate under the leadership of a board. Like their K–12 peers, charter public schools are constituent districts of Michigan’s intermediate school districts (ISDs). They must comply with the same statutory and regulatory requirements as all other K–12 public schools, including federal and state accountability programs and special education laws.
Charter public schools also have an additional level of accountability not found in other Michigan public schools. In order to operate, a charter school must have a valid legal contract, or charter, with a Michigan authorizer. Each school’s charter contract includes a host of legal requirements with which each school must comply. If they don’t succeed, they won’t exist.
Do you know of any traditional school in Michigan that’s ever been closed for failure to perform—even if they have 0% student proficiency? That’s right, you don’t. And those schools DO exist in our state. Contrast this to the 103 charter public schools that have been closed due to academic, financial, and/or operational performance issues.
Myth: Charter schools have no oversight of their operations . . .
In fact, more people are “watching the store” in charter public schools than they are in the traditional K–12 sector. The addition of an authorizer—and authorizer with the leverage needed to close poor performing schools—makes charter schools more accountable than their less regulated counterparts.
What’s key is that in charter schools, it is far more likely problems will be identified faster than they might be otherwise. Charter school authorizers today have developed a unique set of skills and assets for carrying out their work, and in most of the specific instances identified by the Detroit Free Press and other critics, it was authorizers who identified the problems and brought them to the attention of the other regulating agencies.
This does raise the question—who is identifying these issues in traditional schools, or other government/nonprofit institutions with fewer levels of oversight?
During the past two decades, not every charter school authorized in Michigan has turned out to be a success story. There have been challenges and closures along the way; some of which have been reported in the press, while others have been effectively addressed behind the scenes with less fanfare.
However, charter public schools are public in every sense of the word. Subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and transparent in their operations, charter schools and authorizers alike work to uncover and address their challenges as they occur, without delay. Indeed, because authorizers are in constant contact with their schools’ academic, operational, and financial details, they are often able to detect and resolve areas of concern before they escalate into bigger issues.
The fact that challenges occur is less significant than the fact that they have been swiftly and effectively resolved. Michigan’s existing charter school oversight structure has withstood a wide array of practical and policy challenges while simultaneously piloting new innovations that advance student achievement and local school success.
Myth: Charter schools only care about profit. . . .
If profit were the motive for charter schooling, absolutely nobody would be doing it. Charter schools receive, on average, $1630 less than their neighboring traditional schools. What’s more, charters receive $0 for facilities, meaning that they must pay for their buildings out of their operating dollars.
Charter schools don’t HAVE the profits many people imagine. Yes, it’s true that many wealthy individuals are involved in charter schooling. However, their incomes are by and large from other sources, and education is for them a passion and/or an avocation, not a strong source of personal cash flow.
Myth: Charter schools teach religion . . .
Charter schools are prohibited from teaching religion pursuant to state law.
Myth: Charter schools “cherry pick” students from other schools . . .
Charter schools are open to all students. When the number of student applicants exceeds the number of available seats, a random selection lottery is held to determine which students will be enrolled.
On this note, it is also worth pointing out that Michigan charter schools actually enroll a higher proportion of poor, minority students than traditional public schools.
Myth: Charter schools do not use certified teachers . . .
Charter schools are subject to the same certification and “highly qualified” provisions of state and federal law as all other schools. Not only do charter schools use certified and highly qualified staff, they also submit to periodic audits by their authorizers and the state to ensure their compliance.
Myth: Charter schools take money from other public schools . . .
All Michigan schools receive money through a per-pupil foundation allowance. When a public school - charter or traditional - loses a pupil, the school also loses money. The inverse is also true: when a school gains a pupil, the school gains money.
The idea is that when a school is performing well, delivering solid academic results and engendering high levels of student and parent satisfaction, that school will reap financial benefits. This is the fundamental policy calculation associated with Michigan's competitive educational marketplace.
Myth: Charter schools do not educate special education pupils . . .
Not only do charter schools educate special education students; in many instances they also have more innovative approaches to achieving results with this population. Charter schools in Michigan have implemented early intervention strategies that help them address the individual needs of students very effectively.
Myth: Charter schools authorizers operate schools . . .
Charter school boards are ultimately responsible for operating their own schools. They hire either a management company or contract with their own staff members to ensure adequate instruction and services to students.
Authorizers sift through charter school applications to choose the programs with the greatest likelihood of success. They then hold those programs accountable for delivering promised results, and close them if they fail to perform. There is an arms-length, contractual relationship between Michigan authorizers and the schools they oversee.
Myth: All charter school applications submitted to an authorizer are approved . . .
Nothing could be further from the truth. Nation wide approval percentage is approximately 35%.
Myth: All charter schools–and their authorizers–operate on a for-profit basis . . .
Charter school boards in Michigan are, by law, non-profit public agencies, as are their authorizers. The only entities able to earn a profit from the operation of charter schools are their management companies, and a growing number of them are being organized as non-profit entities as well.
Charter School Results
For the past 25 years, Michigan’s charter school authorizers have played a pivotal role in implementing a groundbreaking new state strategy in K–12 public education. The introduction of charter schools represents an entirely new, market-based approach to public education that is working to positively impact students and families across the state.
It is important to ensure that public expectations relative to the charter movement are appropriate and realistic, and that all schools – traditional and charter schools alike – are held to the same goals.
It is not realistic, for example, to assume that Michigan’s charter school strategy will only be effective if and when charter public schools consistently outperform their local K–12 peers. The guiding principles that shaped the charter movement call for choice, innovation and competition.
Thus, charter public schools are not to be viewed as an alternative system of education that will either be better or worse than the traditional system, but as a part of a dynamic strategy that will shape and enhance the whole. Thus, the appropriate question to ask about charter public schools is not, “How are these schools performing relative to their peers?” but, rather “Is the charter movement fulfilling its strategic objectives and, in general, do these schools have a meaningful impact on public education?”
Here in Michigan and across the nation, education analysts and observers are giving Michigan policymakers insightful feedback in this regard. Michigan’s charter law is now a national model, and the state’s front-line practitioners are well known for their capable leadership and effectiveness.
Here at home, charter public schools continue to have a very positive impact on public education throughout the state. Conventional K-12 schools are responding to competition, and charter schools themselves are providing innovative, quality educational opportunities to the children they serve. If current trends continue, Michigan’s charter strategy will be very successful in bringing about positive change for all schoolchildren, now and in the future.