Opinion: On 25th anniversary, charters are fulfilling their promise

Dan Quisenberry
Charter schools have brought educational hope and opportunity to the communities in Michigan that needed it the most, Quisenberry writes.

With a stroke of his pen 25 years ago today, Gov. John Engler opened the doors of hope and opportunity for countless Michigan students who desperately needed it.

On Jan. 14, 1994, Engler signed Michigan’s charter school legislation into law. The groundbreaking legislation, which was sponsored by state Sen. Dick Posthumus, had passed the Legislature a few months earlier. Michigan’s first nine charter schools opened in the fall of 1994.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary today, it’s the perfect time to ask the question: How has it all worked out?

Exceptionally well.

Approximately a million students have attended a Michigan charter school over the past 25 years, including 150,000 or so students who are enrolled in the state’s 297 charter schools this year. The law that was signed 25 years ago today has given these students opportunities for success they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Charter schools have brought educational hope and opportunity to the communities in Michigan that needed it the most.

Communities like Detroit, where more than half the students attend a charter school. Charter schools like Detroit Edison Public School Academy – ranked the No. 1 open-enrollment school in the city when it comes to college enrollment – help students overcome the most challenging urban environment you’ll find anywhere in the country.

In southwest Detroit, where Spanish-speaking students face challenges we can’t imagine, charter schools like Cesar Chavez Academy give students a place where their language and culture are embraced; a place where they can thrive academically because they feel safe and nurtured.

In the tribal communities of the Upper Peninsula, charter schools like the Ojibwe Charter School near Sault Ste. Marie give students educational opportunities they never would have had otherwise.

In the community of Benton Harbor, a charter school called Countryside Academy literally sprang up from the cornfields more than 20 years ago, giving urban and rural students alike the chance to thrive at an innovative school that combines agriculture and academics.

All of this was made possible thanks to the stroke of a pen 25 years ago today. And in the end, what matters most are the individual student stories we’ve seen over the past quarter-century. A million of them, literally.

One that comes to mind is the story of Chanelle Miles, a young woman who lives in Detroit.

Chanelle was raised by her grandmother in very difficult circumstances. When it came time in 2011 for Chanelle’s grandmother to pick a high school for her, she knew that this was going to be the most important decision of her life. She had an extremely bright, hard-working and ambitious girl on her hands, and she knew that she had to pick the exact right school for Chanelle. She had to get this decision right.

Chanelle Miles

The school she chose for Chanelle was the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a charter school on the city’s Northwest side. Chanelle’s grandmother loved the fact that they had a longer school day and a longer school year. She loved their focus on leadership. She loved that the students wore uniforms.

And you know what? She hit a home run. It ended up being the perfect school for Chanelle. She graduated with honors from the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in 2015, and in just a few months, Chanelle will be graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in psychology. Her dream is to someday open her own recreational therapy center.

Chanelle’s dreams are being realized, and it all started 25 years ago today. That’s something to celebrate, indeed.

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