Friday, June 28, 2013

What are "charter schools?"

Folks who are concerned about public education, but are new to discussions about public school finance and education policy might be unfamiliar with terms like "Proposal A," and may not really know how "charter schools" are different from conventional public schools.  We previously explained some background on "Proposal A," What is "Proposal A," and how does it effect my school?, Okemos Parents for Schools, June 10, 2013, and this post explains the history of charter schools in Michigan, how they differ from what was proposed when they were first authorized, and the reality of what charter schools are like in Michigan today.

The original idea of charter schools is much different than what they have become.

One of the first prominent advocates for charter schools was the President of one of the country's biggest teachers unions.  AFT President Albert Shanker was on the forefront of advocating for charter schools in 1988. Shanker proposed that districts work with teachers to form schools which could serve as laboratories.  The successful methods developed in the charters could be propagated throughout the public school system.  These schools could also offer more flexibility to educate the students with the greatest needs.  How to fix the charter school movement (and what Albert Shanker really said), The Answer Sheet, July 16, 2012.

The original idea of charter schools was not to replace public schools or compete with public schools.  The original idea was to have a limited tool for public schools to improve themselves.  By and large, the teaching profession has remained committed to charter schools which adhere to this original vision.  It's a myth that opposition to charter schools is just union-backed political resistance.  The AFT still supports quality charter schools.  However, charter schools have expanded rapidly beyond being a tool to improve public education.

Conventional public schools in Michigan are operated by a school district which has an openly elected school board and is accountable to the citizens within its borders.  Conventional public schools can raise money for some pursuits through local property taxes.  But, because of Proposal A, must rely on state funding for operating expenses.  Conventional public schools are responsible for all the students within their borders who choose to attend them.

Charter schools are different.  Rather than being accountable to locally elected officials, each charter is organized through an "authorizer," and an "operator."  Non-profit and for-profit entities can open and "operate" a charter school so long as they enter into an agreement with an "authorizing body." 

While charter schools must have a governing board in Michigan, the board is appointed by the "authorizer," and is totally unaccountable to the local community.  In a charter school, the community is completely removed the school.  Even parents and students who attend the charter school have no ability to impact the school through the democratic process like they would a public school district.  If they don't like what's going on at the charter, their only option is to leave and hope another school offers what they want. They have no ownership because, unlike a public school, a charter is not their school.  Parents and students have no role as citizens in the school.  Instead, they are reduced to mere customers.

An authorizing body can be:
  • A community college
  • A public university
  • An intermediate school district
  • A K-12 school district, or
  • Two or more of the above entities exercising power jointly under an interlocal agreement. [MCL 380.501]
In practice, three institutions authorize the majority of charter schools in Michigan.  As of August 31, 2012, there were 277 charter schools operating in Michigan.  The biggest "authorizer" was Central Michigan University which authorized 59 charter schools. The second-biggest authorizer was Bay Mills Community College with 43.  Grand Valley State authorized 42.  Michigan Public School Academies by Authorizer.

Some have the impression that because a public institution like a public university "authorizes" a charter school, this respected public institution has some role in day-to-day operations of the charter school.  This is not true.  Once an authorizer has signed a contract with a charter school, little more is required.  An authorizer is "responsible for overseeing compliance by the board of directors with the contract and all applicable law."  MCL 380.502(4).  But that's it.  So long as the charter school's board of directors isn't breaking any laws, the authorizer's role is fulfilled.

The authorizer has no duty to make sure the school is safe, to ensure quality of instruction, or to ensure teachers are licensed.  There is definitely no requirement that authorizers ensure charter schools embark on a mission of exploring new methods.  There is no requirement that charter schools propagate innovative methods to public schools.  Authorizers have no real role other than to rubber stamp authorizing contracts.  Once that is done, the actual running of the school is left to the "operator," which in Michigan is most often just a for-profit corporation.

So what role do authorizers really fill in the process?

In Michigan, using public money to fund private schools through vouchers is illegal under the state Constitution.  Mich. Const. Art VIII, Section 2.  It is patently illegal for a for-profit corporation to unilaterally open a school in Michigan and receive public money meant for public education.  But, so long as an authorizer, such as the Upper Peninsula's Bay Mills Community College, has a contract with the for-profit corporation, the public money it receives isn't considered a voucher, and Michigan law is satisfied.

Today, the reality of the what charter schools have become is completely different than what was promised to Michigan voters in the early 1990s. First, charters have not seriously been limited in number.  The number of charters skyrocketed in the 1990s, and steadily climbed through the last decade.

The number of charters is Michigan is set to enter another period of unprecedented growth.  In 2011, although Michigan already had one of the highest number of charter schools in the country, our Legislature and Governor uncapped the number of charters going forward.  This year Michigan had 276 charter schools.  In the fall, 32 more will open including a cyber charter right here in Okemos.  Cyber charter set to open in Okemos, Okemos Parents for Schools, May 26, 2013. The cyber charter opening up in Okemos will be "authorized" by Central Michigan University. 

The radical expansion of charter schools was met with alarm from non-partisan education advocacy group Education Trust Mid-West.  The concern from Education Trust Mid-West was based, not in knee-jerk opposition to the concept of charter schools, but because low quality operators would be allowed to open even more charter schools:
Amber Arellano, the group's executive director, said in the statement that while the group supports high-quality charter schools, the group is concerned by some of the operators in charge of the schools. "Too many of the new charter schools opening are run by operators who are failing to do right by our parents and students," Arellano said.
Among the schools opening in the fall is an additional elementary campus of Detroit's Cesar Chavez Academy, which operator The Leona Group says will bring the school's total enrollment to more than 2,500 students in grades K-12.
The Education Trust-Midwest criticizes the move in their analysis, citing reading test scores at the school which trailed Detroit Public Schools on the 2012 MEAP, particularly among Hispanic students. [Education advocacy group slams operators of some new charter schools,, May 24, 2013.]
But maybe all of this would be fine if charter schools delivered better results.  While there are some high-performing charter schools, on average they perform worse than public schools. Education Trust Mid-West summed up how Michigan has outsourced education to charter schools with dire results:
"While leading states were developing a more comprehensive approach to education, Michigan’s primary strategy has been to expand choice by allowing charter and virtual schools to proliferate, regardless of quality,” the report states. “Charter and virtual schools have experienced explosive growth, but they haven’t come close to matching their promise.” 
The report found 73 percent of charter schools performed below the average Michigan public school in 2012 and that they are disproportionately among the lowest-performing schools. [Michigan Isn't Properly Monitoring Schools, Education Group Says, Bridge Magazine, April 18, 2013.]
It makes sense that charter schools lag behind public schools in performance since they spend less per pupil on instruction.  Because charter schools tend to be smaller than comprehensive public school districts, they cannot leverage economies of scale and tend to spend more on administration.  Analysis of Michigan Charter School Revenues and Expenses,, December 22, 2011.  Also, while a public school spends all its revenue on instruction and administration, for-profit charters by definition take some of the public money meant for education and take it for profits.  Like all profit-seeking entities, they take as much profit as possible.  Of course, this means that public money does not go toward educating children. 80 percent of Michigan charters are for-profit. 

The anecdotal evidence on Michigan charter schools isn't any better.  In Muskegon Heights an entire district was privatized, turning it over to a charter company with results which have been troubling at best.  Teachers fled the privatized district in droves at the start of the school year. 1 in 4 teachers at Muskegon Heights school quit during the first 3 months of school year, NPR, December 3, 2012.  That led to the district hiring uncertified teachers.  The district didn't seek any kind of waiver of the state's requirement for teacher certification.  Rather, the district just employed uncertified teachers until the abuse was uncovered by investigative reporting.  Investigation uncovers non-certified teachers at Muskegon Heights new charter school, NPR, February 12, 2013

In Highland Park, charter school operate Leona Group is operating the schools.  Highland Park Schools, Wikipedia.  There, performance has been so bad under charter management, children have sued the state for failing to teach them to read.  The state has taken the fantastic position that, because the schools are under emergency management, the state is not accountable for delivering on the promise of public education, and is no one is accountable for these children learning to read.  The Right to Read, ACLU.

While charter schools were meant to be a tool for public schools to innovate, they have instead become a parallel system taking public funds for private profits and delivering shoddy instruction.


  1. I have been doing some of my own, home grown research, and what strikes me is that these Charter Schools are really not accountable to anyone. They have boards that are selected by the authorize, they do not publish their board packets, or minutes. So I have FOIAd some, all rubber stamps to the management company. They are also boondoggles for funnel public tax payer dollars in the form of lease payments too. Some of the management companies are making a HUGE profit leasing the buildings to the charter. The big difference there is that it is not an asset of the community like a public school building is.

  2. Dining Diva, great point about accountability. I added the following paragraph to address that point:

    "While charter schools must have a governing board in Michigan, the board is appointed by the "authorizer," and is totally unaccountable to the local community. In a charter school, the community is completely removed the school. Even parents and students who attend the charter school have no ability to impact the school through the democratic process like they would a public school district. If they don't like what's going on at the charter, their only option is to leave and hope another school offers what they want. They have no ownership because, unlike a public school, a charter is not their school. Parents and students have no role as citizens in the school. Instead, they are reduced to mere customers."