Editorial: Don’t dis charters for political gain

The Detroit News
(From left) Businessman Shri Thanedar, former state Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer, and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed participate in a televised gubernatorial debate in Grand Rapids on Wednesday.

Charter schools have offered hope to families in school districts with chronically failing public schools. But they may be in danger of extinction in Michigan.

Both leading Democratic candidates for governor have revealed their plans for fixing education, and neither Gretchen Whitmer nor Shri Thanedar has expressed much use for charter schools as part of the solution.

Pro-choice does not extend to education for the Democratic candidates, who are making charters the whipping boy for the state’s education failure.

Thanedar is sticking to his hard-line position that all for-profit charter schools should be banned in Michigan, despite recent reports that they are among the state’s top-performing schools.

That shouldn’t surprise. Profit is a powerful motivator when an enterprise’s survival depends on delivering results.

But most of the for-profit charter operators aren’t skimming huge amounts of cash off the schools. They’re simply run by private entities. 

Whitmer, who is endorsed by the Michigan Education Association, is basing her education policy in regards to charters on a string of false premises, according to an analysis by the conservative Mackinac Center.

She continues the canard that charter schools operate with little oversight, and thus “fail our kids.” They don’t fail, in most cases. In Detroit, the best charter high schools outperform the best traditional public schools on nearly ever measure.

For those schools that do fail to deliver, most charter operators have been willing to shut them down. No traditional public school has ever closed in Michigan due to poor academic performance.

Whitmer also makes a big deal out of her promise to force all schools to accept any student that applies. All schools, even charters, already have to do that under state law. Charters must hold lotteries to fill their classroom spots, and can’t turn down special needs students or low performers. Again, in Detroit, the top charter high schools have as high or higher percentages of special needs and impoverished students as the traditional public high schools.

She goes on to demand that charters meet the same standards for hiring certified teachers and maintaining rigorous financial oversight, all of which they also already have to do.

Education reform is perhaps the most vital issue in Michigan, and should drive the conversation in this fall’s elections. That conversation should not be based on misinformation.

Candidates at every level should commit themselves to doing whatever it takes to move Michigan from a bottom 10 education state to the Top 10. Scapegoating charters and fighting school choice is not the way to unite the state behind that common goal.

And it is a particularly curious tactic for candidates such as Thanedar and Whitmer, who are seeking votes in Detroit, where nearly half the city’s students attend charter, private or suburban schools.

Neither charters nor traditional public schools have much to brag about in Michigan. 

Instead of spreading falsehoods about charters and pretending they’re at the root of the problem, a better approach would be to celebrate the state’s best performing schools, regardless of their governance structure, and use them as a jumping off point to improve all schools in Michigan.