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Michigan: The Poster Child for How Not to do Charter Schools

02/16/2016 10:03 am ET | Updated Feb 16, 2016

Behind the Detroit schools crisis lies a troubling charter school sector.

As Detroit Public Schools' teacher sick-outs and mounting debt capture the attention of press around the world, it might be easy to conclude money alone will solve the Motor City's educational woes. The truth is, its school landscape is complex -- and its solutions don't all come down to money.

One of the city's greatest challenges comes down to something that's free, but demands strong state leadership and political will: accountability.

That might sound simple, but in Michigan it's an incredibly difficult political challenge, especially when it comes to some of the most powerful actors who have greatly shaped Detroit and Michigan communities' school markets over the last two decades: charter school authorizers.

This is a story about what happens to a state when its leaders lift a charter school cap and open the state's doors to massive charter school growth -- supported by billions of taxpayer dollars -- without thinking through how they will hold charter authorizers accountable for their decision-making. And it has national implications, as a growing number of states consider whether to open the doors to charter school growth.

In states such as Massachusetts, where state leaders developed an admirably strong system of performance standards, accountability mechanisms and safeguards to ensure their charter sector would well serve all students -- especially vulnerable children -- the story is quite different than Michigan's narrative.

Consider: Students in Boston Public Schools far outperform students in Detroit Public Schools on the national assessment in every subject and all grades tested. What's more, over 90 percent of Boston charter schools are showing greater math learning gains than the local traditional district, according to Stanford University research.

In comparison, Michigan's overall charter sector performance is a national embarrassment. To be sure, there are some terrific charter schools in my state -- and more of them are needed to serve the thousands of poor children who lack access to great public schools.

The problem is, there simply aren't enough strong Michigan charters. Michigan has failed to put into place any real performance standards or accountability for its charter authorizers and operators, despite the fact that the sector has been open in the state for more than two decades.

The result: Roughly half of Michigan's charter schools ranked in the bottom quarter of all public schools for academic performance, according to state accountability data from 2013-14. Recent research from Stanford University also found that about eight in 10 Michigan charter schools have academic achievement below the state average for both reading and math.

The challenge is particularly acute in Detroit, where the traditional public school district had already failed children for decades. Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has been among the lowest performing urban school districts for years in many subjects; it's an incredibly low bar to beat for student achievement. Yet among charter districts with significant African American enrollments, two-thirds actually performed below DPS for African American students on the state's 2013 8th grade math assessment. Moreover, roughly 70 percent of charter schools located in Detroit ranked in the bottom quarter of all Michigan public schools in 2013-14 for academic performance.

That's nothing less than remarkable -- and truly heartbreaking. Instead of providing better school options to low-income parents, as the charter sector promised here, too often Michigan charter leaders are replicating failure.

Indeed, according to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Michigan's no-accountability approach has wreaked havoc in the city and caused about 80 percent of all schools -- both charter and traditional -- to open or close over the last seven years. That's not good for high-performing schools of any kind. Further complicating the accountability conversation is the fact that well over three-quarters of Michigan charter schools are run by for-profit management companies.

As an organization committed to improving outcomes for all Michigan students, we support all high-performing schools, whether they are run by charter operators or traditional districts. For us, what matters is student outcomes.

Michigan's charter sector problems are simply too great to ignore. With about 60 percent students of color and 70 percent low-income, persistent underperformance is not just a topic of major concern -- it's a pressing civil rights issue. It's also a taxpayer issue. Some of Michigan's large charter school authorizers are trusted public universities, such as Northern Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University, which have collectively taken in millions of taxpayer dollars over decades.

Lately my organization has documented better decision-making by some authorizers -- as we highlight in our new report -- but marginal improvement is simply not enough. Charter authorizing should be a privilege earned and maintained through strong performance -- not an entitlement, as it's become in Michigan.

We strongly believe that high-quality charter schools can be an effective tool for closing Michigan's -- and America's -- unacceptable achievement gaps.

Sadly, my home state has become a national poster child of how not to do charter schools.
Leaders elsewhere should take notice: Michigan's charter school path is a tragic one to be avoided.

Amber Arellano is the executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan research, policy, practice and advocacy nonprofit organization committed to making Michigan a top ten education state for all students.

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