Public oversight of Michigan charter schools inadequate, report says

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Public oversight of Michigan's charter schools needs to be strengthened to ensure tax dollars are spent productively and that students are well-served, says a new report by a nonprofit public affairs research group.

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a privately funded Lansing-based organization, issued a scathing report on Wednesday, saying the state should adopt new administrative rules for the state superintendent to better provide oversight of charter school authorizers and enact new laws that define oversight expectations and responsibilities.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos enters the principal of engineering class at Detroit Edison Public School Academy with student Mai'ja Hinton last year.

“Michigan was one of the first states to allow charter schools," Citizens Research Council President Eric Lupher said. "The focus then and for many years to follow was to enable the charter school movement to take roots and become part of the education landscape. 

"Oversight was a neglected aspect of those efforts. During the intervening years, other states have created oversight structures that improve transparency and operations of the schools."

The report, “Improving Oversight of Michigan Charter Schools and Their Authorizers,” was commissioned and funded by the Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School.

About 10% of Michigan’s schoolchildren, or roughly 150,000, attend 377 charter schools, mostly in urban areas such as Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Ypsilanti, Lansing and Saginaw.

Of these, 87% are authorized by universities and community colleges. Charter authorizers can receive up to 3% share of per-pupil funding and are expected to provide oversight to the schools they charter.

Neither the state superintendent of public education nor any other state-level agency has more than weak authority over these authorizers, the report concludes.

"The Research Council found this creates a disconnect with the public and reduces accountability," the report states.

Council officials say charter schools replace the democratic accountability historically used with traditional school districts with market accountability.

"The idea is that successful schools will thrive and drive innovation in education and unsuccessful schools will close; however, strong oversight is needed to ensure the productive use of public resources and the well-being of children," the report says.

Other suggestions from the report include creating clearer legal definitions of oversight expectations and requiring accreditation for all authorizers, the report says.

The report finds that while the state can “force the closure of the lowest-performing schools” and can suspend authorizers that are not doing their jobs, there are virtually no state standards governing when those actions are necessary and appropriate, and there are no requirements for authorizers to report to the public on how they are spending state funds. 

"To the extent there is oversight by an authorizer, that oversight is not public," the report says.

The report notes that Michigan differs from many other states in that it relies heavily on charter school authorizers, namely universities and community colleges, without setting minimum standards for authorizers to meet.

There is no requirement that authorizers demonstrate that they have the experience, effectiveness, or capacity to do the work, and there is no system for certifying or approving who can authorize schools, the report says. Except for in Detroit, authorizers do not have to be accredited. 

Charter school officials were quick to fire back against the report on Wednesday.

Robert Kimball, associate vice president for charter schools at Grand Valley State University and chairman of the board for the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizer, said on Wednesday that university authorizers of public charter schools in Michigan are fully accountable to the boards of their institutions, the Department of Education, the law and parents.

"Our state’s children deserve all of us working together to help them succeed and learn, and this report from the Levin Center does nothing to advance those important conversations about student achievement," Kimball said. "It divides, rather than unites, by rehashing decades-old arguments that distract us from the real job at hand —educating kids."

Kimball said the highest-rated open enrollment high schools in Detroit are public charter schools, and that Michigan is a national leader in quality public charter school authorizing, "in large part because our state’s universities have been committed to oversight, accountability and student achievement for more than 25 years."

Great Lakes Education Project chairman Jim Barrett also challenged the report, calling it "bizarre, sloppy and self-contradictory." 

“Michigan’s public charter schools are the most accountable in the state,” Barrett said. “The Levin Center report admits authorizers meet accountability standards but still attacks the autonomy of the Michigan universities that authorize them."

The Great Lakes Education Project is a charter school advocacy group founded by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick.

Unlike traditional schools, Barrett says public charter schools feature public university or other authorizer oversight, they ban school board members with financial conflicts of interest, are required to publish financial reports and they close with poor performance.

“No child is forced to go to a public charter school,” Barrett said. “Parents exercise accountability and control every day. The Levin Center knows it.”