Huddleston: Set higher bar for Michigan charter schools
Charter schools can work wonders. Just look at Detroit. According to researchers at Stanford University, Detroit schools have one of the highest shares of students in poverty, but local charter schools have managed to wipe out the effects of poverty in the classroom. When comparing charter school scores to traditional public schools in Detroit, it looks like a comparison between affluent schools vs. poor ones.
But it doesn’t always work like that. Not all of our charter schools are success stories and some of them have been failing our kids for years. Even worse, no one can fire the people responsible for letting this happen.
In Michigan, the problem lies with a patchwork group of people responsible for the oversight of our charter schools called charter school authorizers. They are given the authority to decide how 140,000 children are educated and how $1 billion in taxpayer funds are spent in our charter schools. But they are accountable to no one.
Because of the lax requirements in Michigan law, we have 40 different charter school authorizers — too many people with the power to authorize charter schools and no way to ensure they do a good job. This becomes a problem when poor-performing charter schools are able to shop around until they find an authorizer with low enough standards to keep the school open.
Michigan’s first charter school opened 20 years ago and it was supposed to create better school options for the students who need them most, but today this lack of accountability is hurting our children. In Michigan, 30,000 kids are stuck in charter schools managed by our worst authorizers, with many of these children receiving a much worse education than they would in even the state’s worst-performing traditional public schools.
Luckily, the solution is clear. We need to hold charter authorizers and charter schools accountable and set rigorous standards that are outlined in their charter contracts. The bar should be simple: Each charter school needs to provide a choice that is at least as good or better than the other school choices available. If not, the school should be closed. If the authorizer is failing to close those schools, their power as an authorizer should be revoked. Nowadays, we have access to more performance data for students, teachers and schools than ever before, which we should put to good use.
Some may look at this situation and think that charter schools are the problem, but that would be a misguided response — the evidence points the opposite direction. Just as we’ve seen it in Detroit, we’ve seen it all over the country: Poor minority students tend to achieve better academic results on average in public charter schools than traditional public schools. That’s important because 72 percent of students in Michigan charter schools qualify for free and reduced school lunches.
But charter schools cannot work if they are being operated by folks who have consistently failed to take the necessary steps to provide quality education to the students they serve. In Michigan, we have the highest number of out-of-state, for-profit charter operators in the country. Because of the lack of accountability for charter schools, Michigan has become ripe ground for dubious operators who have not demonstrated a commitment to educating our kids.
The state must address the gaping holes in our laws to ensure all charter authorizers are doing their jobs and only approving high-quality charter schools. There must be clear standards for charter schools and authorizers, and ways for those standards to be enforced. Anything short of that is a failure for our children and for the future of Michigan.
Lindsay Huddleston is state director for StudentsFirst Michigan and will be moderating several town halls around the state to discuss charter school accountability this month.