Jacques: Slow down on charter school reform

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michigan charter schools are feeling a little picked on lately.

Since July, these public schools which educate about 10 percent of the state’s students have received nearly 100 percent of the criticism coming from Democratic lawmakers and other education leaders.

In recent months, Democrats have introduced three pieces of legislation that ultimately seek to limit charter schools and single them out for additional accountability and transparency when all public schools could benefit from more scrutiny.

And earlier this summer, state Superintendent Mike Flanagan put 11 of the state’s 40 charter authorizers on notice, jeopardizing their ability to charter any future schools.

The common thread behind all this action against charter schools stems from a detailed series of media reports that came out in June.

Lawmakers and other leaders quick to jump on the anti-charter bandwagon should take a breather considering a report released Monday that analyzes the reporting and finds it falls short.

The Media Bullpen, the independent news branch of Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, took a close look at data and came to very different conclusions about the health of Michigan’s charter school community. The center works to promote school accountability and choice around the country.

“Michigan spends $13 billion of taxpayers’ dollars on K-12 public education, yet not a single traditional public school has been closed by the Michigan Department of Education or a Michigan school district for academic reasons,” Kara Kerwin, Center for Education Reform president, said in a statement. “Michigan’s charter school closure rate is 22 percent, while the national charter school closure rate is 15 percent. The fact that Michigan has one of the highest charter school closure rates in the nation shows that authorizers in the state take accountability and the public’s trust to educate students to their fullest potential very seriously.”

The analysis also found:

■“Charter schools performed academically an average of 4 percentage points better than the average traditional public school.”

■“Michigan’s charter school law has strict transparency provisions that require charter schools to publicly report their charter contract; board members’ terms, policies, meeting minutes and agendas; and budgets approved by the board.”

■“The charter school sector in Michigan is strong and meeting the demand of parent choice. State law allows for a diversity of providers, educational approach and increased instructional time.”

■“Charter schools in Michigan are prohibited from hiring anyone to work in the school that has a potential conflict of interest or relationship with a board member of the school.”

That sound like considerable oversight.

Yet earlier this week, House lawmakers Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, and others announced legislation that would “create transparency and accountability standards for charter schools, charter school authorizers and the for-profit educational management organizations that contract to run many charter schools.”

Roberts and Lipton also recently introduced a bill that would place a moratorium on all new charter schools and ultimately close many more.

Clearly, charter supporters in Michigan applaud the Media Bullpen report and feel unfairly attacked by charter detractors in the state.

“Politicians in Lansing used the [media] report to introduce legislation and take other actions that would greatly harm the progress we’ve made with charter schools,” says Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “I would hope those politicians take the opportunity to reconsider what they’ve done.”

While there is room to improve charter schools in Michigan, it should be a part of a broader discussion to raise the bar for all schools.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.