Column: Michigan’s optional law system

Jared Burkhart

I have a friend who works in law enforcement. Frequently, he will come in contact with a person who has broken the law but will let that person know that it is a law that he think shouldn’t be enforced. When this happens, he usually encourages the person to speak with his legislator and get the law repealed. You see, my friend understands he does not have the power to change the law, but he does still have the responsibility to enforce it.

Unfortunately, we have growing problem in our state when it comes to the enforcement of some laws. Lawmakers are passing laws. The governor is signing laws, and very often then state government departments are responsible for implementing the laws. Just like my police officer friend. What is happening more frequently however is that government bureaucrats in Lansing are deciding that some laws are just too tough or inconvenient to follow, and they are picking and choosing which to follow and which to ignore.

The latest example comes from the Michigan Department of Education. The law governing schools in Michigan says that the State Superintendent shall produce a list of the schools performing in the bottom 5 percent of all schools in this state. The department is required to release this list by Sept. 1 each year. The law gives a date and the law says SHALL release; it’s not an option.

Today, here we are. Sept. 1 and Labor Day has come and gone, our children are back in school, the list is nowhere to be seen, and there really is no excuse. The Department of Education has run the list before. They have updated data. Run the formula on a computer, compile the list and send it out. It’s the law.

But this is about more than a list or a law. It’s about learning and helping students. It’s no wonder Michigan continues to slip lower and lower on national education rankings. By failing to share information about school performance with residents, the Department of Education is making it harder and harder for parents and educational leaders to hold schools accountable for performance and improve outcomes for students.

Unlike the state department, however, one school organization actually is doing its job: Michigan’s charter school authorizers. Six percent of charter schools are under some form of accountability plan based on their academic performance. Very similar to the 5 percent of schools that, if the state followed the law and released the list of school performance, would be identified as the poorest performing and held accountable, ideally, for their results.

That the Department of Education is ignoring the law is probably surprising. What isn’t is that when people actually do their jobs, good things result. The top three high schools in Michigan in the U.S. News and World Report rankings are charter schools. It’s not because they know something everyone else doesn’t. It’s because each school’s authorizer makes sure the schools are doing their job and holds them accountable to parents, to students and to taxpayers. It’s time to make sure MDE follows the law and does the same.

Jared Burkhart is executive director of Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers.