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Charter schools have long been a topic of debate in Michigan. Policymakers and parents, teachers and students have argued whether they are living up to the premise that they would bring innovation and high quality education opportunities to Michigan. 

Key to these discussions is accountability. Are charter school operators accountable? And if so, to whom?  

In a just-completed study, the Citizens Research Council has found that the policy foundation upon which Michigan’s charter school movement was built has failings.

Specifically, weak oversight of the entities that authorize charter schools (primarily universities) makes it difficult to monitor their effectiveness. 

Improving this law can increase confidence in charters and allow us to expect high achievement from the students enrolled.

Charter schools compete for students like private schools, but are funded with tax dollars. Their establishment requires permission, or a “charter,” from an entity authorized to open and oversee them. The charter lays out student performance expectations and the standards for which each school will be held accountable.

Charter schools have blossomed in Michigan since the passage of the charter law in 1993. Today there are 363 charter school districts throughout the state, educating 10% of the students. Those chartered by a university or community college enroll more than 90% of these students.

Improved oversight of schools and authorizers could help identify and address issues before they become problems, ultimately helping to improve the schools. 

Oversight should focus on student achievement, not the rules and processes for operating a school. State laws should be amended to require more transparency about the money paid to management companies.

Michigan must improve oversight of the authorizers. First, the state must have authority to impose sanctions on schools or authorizers not meeting expectations. Authorizers must account for their actions; academic and financial information must be available to all; and authorizers must face consequences if students, families, or taxpayers are not adequately served.

Consequences could be put in place to make charter school authorizing a privilege.

Currently it is treated as a right exercised by any university, community college or school district that allows a school to open. This could happen if the Department of Education would adopt administrative rules to empower the state superintendent to sanction authorizers for failing to provide oversight. It would become a privilege if all authorizers are required to receive accreditation. Currently only authorizers with schools in Detroit are required to receive accreditation.

We need to do better to lay out the expectations of authorizers. Unlike other states, Michigan law does not define their oversight responsibilities. The responsibilities of the state Department of Education should be more clearly defined and funding should be provided so that the department can fulfill its role.

We need better accounting for the funding the authorizers retain to perform their charter granting and oversight responsibilities. Michigan’s 40-plus authorizers collect approximately $35 million per year for this task. To put this figure in perspective, consider that it represents roughly one-third of all funding received by the Department of Education, which is responsible for overseeing the education of approximately 1.5 million students statewide.

Public education in America is evolving. In addition to many other reforms, schools increasingly are being judged on performance. For many years, students attended the schools to which they were assigned based on geographically drawn lines. The introduction of charter schools, school choice, and virtual schools is introducing market accountability to the mix.

The premise of charters is that successful schools will attract students and thrive, driving innovation in education. Unsuccessful schools will lose students and either close or require state intervention to address financial unsustainability. Only with a strong oversight system will these reforms be enabled to flourish. 

Eric Lupher is president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

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