Column: Charter schools are top schools

Jared Burkhart

For more than two decades, Michigan’s charter schools have been quietly delivering some very exciting results. Student growth and achievement, program innovation and vital connections made with traditionally underserved populations have helped breathe new life into the state’s K-12 landscape.

These outcomes received fresh recognition this week as three charter public schools topped the U.S. News & World Report rankings of Michigan high schools. Nationally, four of five best high schools in the country are charter schools.

U.S. News releases the rankings every year, and they’re considered the gold standard of high school rankings. Michigan’s top three high schools are: Wellspring Preparatory High School, Grand Rapids; Arbor Preparatory High School, Ypsilanti; and Black River Public School, Holland.

The rankings also speak well of the accountability and oversight practices established by Michigan authorizers and educational service providers. Bay Mills Community College authorizes both Wellspring and Arbor Preparatory High Schools, which both use PrepNet to manage their operations. Grand Valley State University authorizes Black River High School.

In addition to the top three, numerous other charter schools were ranked highly by U.S. News & World Report, including West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science in Grand Rapids (No. 17); West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids (No. 72 in Michigan); and Star International Academy in Dearborn Heights (No. 80 in Michigan).

We firmly believe these achievements serve to shatter several longstanding myths surrounding Michigan’s charter public school sector.

First, it’s true — charter schools do deliver excellent high school programming, after all. For decades, established political opponents have argued that Michigan’s charter schools only serve so-called “low-cost, easy-to-educate elementary students.” There are so many things wrong with that assertion, we can’t even begin to take it apart.

Now we don’t have to. The top three high schools in Michigan speak for themselves, and there are many, many others doing similar work whose names are virtually certain to appear on future lists.

It’s also true that schools don’t need massive amounts of cash to deliver quality educational outcomes. We often read that public school achievement problems are a result of too few dollars and too many needs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Michigan’s charter schools receive $1,630 less per pupil as a result of their inability to levy property tax millage. As a result, they must pay for their facilities out of their operating budgets, which places tremendous fiscal pressure on these organizations. And yet despite these very real funding inequities, charter schools are still managing to deliver superior results.

Finally, Michigan’s oversight and accountability structure delivers excellence for learners. Our state’s authorizers are effective in holding Michigan charter schools to high standards. They provide an additional layer of public review over and above what traditional schools receive, and it may be that this structure holds promise when it comes to boosting student results.

In fact, we would argue that all Michigan schools should be given such simple, transparent accountability structures. We believe in A-F accountability for schools, top-to-bottom lists and other tools for identifying and replicating quality while weeding out low performers.

There are many successes to be found within the state’s charter school sector. From compelling student results to strong accountability and family satisfaction, we have much to be proud of.

Jared Burkhart is executive director of the Michigan Council for Charter School Authorizers. Dan Quisenberry is president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.