Opinion: Charter school veto an attack on Detroit students

David Griffith
Among her $1 billion in line item vetoes, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cut provisions for a $240-per-pupil increase to Michigan charter schools.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent decision to use her line-item veto to nix a $240-per-pupil funding increase for Michigan’s public charter schools was wrong on many levels.

Most obviously, it’s unfair to charters, since the Legislature originally approved a funding increase for all public schools. Since the students that Michigan’s charters serve are disproportionately poor and black, however, it’s also deeply inequitable. And of course, since 46% of Detroit students enrolled in a charter last year — versus 10% of all Michigan students — the decision has particularly unfortunate consequences for the city and families that helped get Whitmer elected.

Perhaps the governor is just looking for leverage in ongoing budget negotiations. But even if that’s so, the game she’s playing is a dangerous one. In recent years, dozens of studies have found that black and Latino students in charter schools make substantially more academic progress than those in traditional public schools — especially in major cities like Detroit. Furthermore, a growing body of research suggests that achievement in district-run schools increases in response to charter competition — contrary to the assertions of charter opponents.

Logically, those two strands of research imply that an increase in the percentage of students who attend charter schools should lead to systemic gains — that is, to an overall increase in achievement. So to test that hypothesis, in a recently published study, I analyzed the relationship between the rise in “charter market share” in hundreds of school districts across the country and the average reading and math achievement of all publicly enrolled students in those districts — including those in traditional public schools.

The results were instructive. In general, higher charter market share is associated with significant achievement gains in reading, as well as modest gains in math. When the data are broken down by race, however, it’s clear that these gains are highly concentrated among black and Latino students. For example, in the 21 largest cities in the country — including Detroit — moving from zero to 50% charter market share among black students boosts the reading and math achievement of the average black student by at least half a grade level.

By the standards of the field, these are monumental gains — the kind the governor hopes to achieve through universal pre-K and other initiatives. But of course, even the best charter schools, which were already underfunded relative to the state’s traditional public schools, need money to do their job properly.

Whatever her motivations, in practice the governor’s veto is an attack on some of Michigan’s most vulnerable children — and Detroit students in particular.

It cannot stand.

David Griffith is a senior research and policy associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the author of a new report: "Rising Tide: Charter School Market Share and Student Achievement."