Opinion: Charter schools play vital role in public school community

Buzz Thomas and Robert T. Kimball
Charter schools have brought educational hope and opportunity to the communities in Michigan that needed it the most, Quisenberry writes.

In 25 years, Michigan’s charter public schools community has gone from an idea to a robust community of nearly 300 public schools that educate more than 145,000 students.

Oftentimes when we think of the purpose of these 300 public schools, it’s through the question of who educates kids better — districts or charters? During this National Charter Schools Week, we believe it is time to move beyond this question.

Improving public education is too important of a responsibility for tit-for-tat arguments like this.
The idea behind public charter schools was that charters and districts could coexist within our state’s public education system. Each would have a distinct purpose. While traditional school districts would continue to provide universal programming, charters could be different. These new schools could be opened by teachers, community leaders, and others with a primary purpose to try new things that would spur innovation throughout the entire public system.

In short, districts and charters should work in tandem for Michigan families — multiple strategies can be tried, diverse educational opportunities can be created for diverse student needs, teachers can be empowered to try new things in the classroom, challenges can be addressed quickly, and success can be scaled up to get results for kids — to create a system that learns and grows.

Michigan has seen the positive impact that charters have had in communities. Full-day kindergarten was once believed to be too much for kids and was piloted in just a few schools. Today, it is the norm. Founders of specialized schools, like STEM-themed, art-and-design academies, advanced manufacturing schools, international schools, and the like, were once told that it couldn’t be done. Now, drive through any big city and you’ll see this diversity in options reflected in the names of almost every high school, traditional and charter.

We’re proud that parents, teachers, and communities have and continue to come together to create new, diverse schools and get positive results for kids in ways that we can only imagine.

We’ve seen what we can do, together, when leaders from districts and the charter community collaborate. In Detroit, for example, we have come together to make a parent-friendly school chooser guide, and work with the mayor’s office on a shared bus line that connects kids to after-school activities. This type of collaboration was unheard of 10 years ago — but it is the norm today.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Opportunity Scholarship and Michigan Reconnect Program can be the next big area of district-charter collaboration. Helping more Michiganians earn credentials for higher-wage jobs is a goal we can all agree on — and a goal we can best achieve by working together.

As we move into the next 25 years of charters, let’s make a choice. Let’s choose to move beyond the us-versus-them mentality. Let’s choose to challenge the status quo and try new things.

Let’s choose to come together behind a positive vision for the future, and see how it can transform public education here in Michigan.

After all, that’s something we should all want for our kids and our state.

Buzz Thomas is the chairman of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies and the former Democratic floor leader of the Michigan Senate. 

Robert T. Kimball, Ed.D., is the associate vice president for charter schools at Grand Valley State University and the chairman of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers.