In 2015, every child in a quality school

Dan Quisenberry

On the first day of class this year, a 16-year-old girl from west Michigan flew herself to school. Not drove – flew.

Her name is Oakley Clay, and she’s a student at West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter school in Grand Rapids at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

Oakley loves to fly, so she was thrilled when she found out that an aviation-themed school was opening in her area.

Oakley started taking aviation classes and flight lessons at West Michigan Aviation Academy, and celebrated the first day of classes by actually flying to school. She took off from the tiny airport near her home in Sparta, and piloted the plane to the airport in Grand Rapids.

How cool is that?

This is how K-12 education is supposed to work. You take students, find out their interests how they learn, and match them up with the right school.

That’s how it worked for Oakley Clay, and that’s how it can work for the other 1.5 million students in Michigan.

Every child deserves a quality education in a quality school. And all parents deserve the opportunity to choose the education best suited to their child.

Guess what? Parents are doing just that. About 10 percent of all children in Michigan are now enrolled in charter schools, more than at any time in our history. With 303 charter schools in the state, parents have more quality options to choose from.

The new year has brought a new Legislature to Lansing. Later this month, Gov. Rick Snyder will be laying out his priorities for the coming year in his State of the State speech. Improving and holding all public schools accountable will certainly be on his list.

Michigan’s charter schools are all about accountability, innovation and achievement, and to that end, we’ll be aggressively promoting policies and legislation that will help every child land in a quality school.

We’ll no doubt be seeing plenty of headlines coming out of Lansing in the next 12 months. Here are the education-related ones we’d most like to:

“State OKs comprehensible A-F letter grading system”

This is the single biggest step we can take to improve accountability and achievement: hand out letter grades to schools. Using a fair, comprehensive and easy-to-understand metric that includes student growth, we should grade schools the same way we grade students, on an A-F scale. This will help us know which schools are quality, and which aren’t. It will make it easier for parents to make informed decisions and will allow us all to hold low-performing schools accountable.

“State funding gap closes; all children to be valued equally”

When it comes to per-pupil funding, students at charter schools receive an average of $1,400 less than traditional public school students. There are also huge disparities among neighboring districts. We took a big step last year toward narrowing this equity gap. We have common expectations for charter public schools and their students; the funding they get should be the same.

“High-performing schools grow; failing schools close”

Charter, traditional, whatever — if a school isn’t performing well and isn’t showing signs of improving, it needs to be closed down. Period. As it stands, charter schools are the only public schools that are closed down if they fail. We need to extend that standard to ALL public schools. Taxpayers shouldn’t be funding bad schools, and students shouldn’t be attending them.

“Lacking new authorizer, failing charter stays shut”

We strongly support this reform to our charter school law. “Authorizer shopping” among low-performing schools needs to be banned immediately. If an authorizer closes a school because of poor performance, that school shouldn’t be allowed to shop for a new partner. Simply getting a new authorizer isn’t going to make a bad school any better.

“Free of mandates, culture of innovation flourishes”

We have far too many mandates that are stifling innovation and tying the hands of our schools — charter and traditional. For instance, instead of mandating that school can’t start until after Labor Day, and spelling out exactly how many hours a student needs to be seated in a class, let’s give schools the freedom to innovate — to do what works best for their students. Narrow regulations and directives from Lansing don’t work well for most things, and education is certainly one of them.

It warmed my heart to hear the story of Oakley Clay, the girl whose education and dreams are literally soaring because she found the right school. As her plane landed on the first day of school this year, she had a smile on her face that was a mile wide.

Wouldn’t it be great to see that same smile on 1.5 million other faces this fall?

Dan Quisenberry is president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state charter school association.