Cook: End Michigan’s charter school experiment already

Steven Cook

When you find yourself in a hole, the first step to getting out is to stop digging.

The hole I am referring to is the $1 billion taxpayers spend each year on Michigan’s experiment with charter schools. A recent report by a pro charter school group ranks Michigan’s charter school accountability law last among similar states. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) released a study entitled “On The Road to Better Accountability,” which points to serious flaws in Michigan’s charter school law. According to the study, “Michigan is notable in that it lacks nearly all of the NACSA’s recommended charter school and authorizer provisions that other states have adopted.” This is not the first group to point out grave deficiencies in our charter school law; however, it is significant because this group is strongly supportive of charter schools across the country.

The study cited many of the same problems identified last summer by the State Board of Education, which were later confirmed by media reports investigating Michigan charter schools — lack of accountability, lack of transparency, and poor academic performance. These problems persist because the law that Michigan charter schools operate under provides no sanctions for charter authorizers who fail to ensure accountability and transparency, and meet basic academic standards. Nearly 40 percent of Michigan charter schools are deemed “low performing” by the state. With more than 140,000 students attending Michigan charter schools, we must do more to ensure that they receive a quality education.

We can start by demanding changes in the law charter school authorizers operate under. Authorizers receive 3 percent of the schools’ state funding, creating a financial incentive to authorize as many schools as possible. For their share of the state’s $1 billion contribution to charter schools, the authorizers are expected to oversee the schools they authorize. The NACSA study echoed the recommendations of the State Board of Education, calling for stronger sanctions for authorizers who do not do their job to ensure the schools they authorize are performing well. Under current law, there are no sanctions for the authorizer of a poor performing school, nor for the school itself, which is why a majority of the worst-ranked charter schools in the state have been operating for more than a decade.

Legislation introduced last year would have addressed some of the problems with our law. Unfortunately, there was no action to move these needed reforms forward. The Legislature cannot continue to ignore or deny the problems that have been identified by a wide range of groups who have taken a serious, in-depth look at Michigan’s charter schools. As Michigan now grapples with an unexpected budget deficit, the need for solutions becomes more urgent. While the for-profit charter school industry has benefited from exponential growth in funding over the past decade, an increasing number of traditional public schools are facing financial collapse. The billion-dollar investment in charter schools has had a devastating effect on districts across our state.

We will never get out of this hole until we stop digging. The first rational step the Legislature should take is to place a moratorium on opening new charter schools. New charters should not be opened under a broken law. The next step is to pass comprehensive charter school reform legislation which guarantees accountability, transparency, and sets academic performance standards for both authorizers and schools. Michigan taxpayers are providing huge profits to companies operating charter schools. We must insist that they are held to high standards and show results in the classroom. The tens of thousands of students in Michigan charter schools deserve nothing less.

Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.