THE BLOG

The Case for Charter Accountability

02/19/2015 09:35 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

When Michigan opened its first charter schools twenty years ago, policymakers and educators envisioned innovative, high-quality public schools that could better respond to unique student needs than traditional public schools. Although a select few charter schools have succeeded in this goal, many more have failed to deliver on their original promise. In fact, 67 percent of charter districts in Michigan perform worse than Detroit Public Schools among African American students in 8th grade math, the nation's worst urban school district, according to the national assessment.

That's distressing news, given that Michigan is just one of just six states where overall student performance in fourth grade reading has declined since 2003, and we are second to last in the country for fourth grade math improvement.

With the future of our students at risk, it's time to finally hold our charter school authorizers accountable for the public education they are providing our children.

Today, the Education Trust-Midwest released a scorecard evaluating the performance of Michigan's charter authorizers, which are the organizations responsible for determining which charter operators can open and maintain charter schools. As a nonpartisan, data-driven education policy research and advocacy organization, we are focused first and foremost on doing what is right for Michigan children. Our goal is to close the achievement gap that too often prevents young people of color and economically-disadvantaged students from reaching their potential, and to ensure that all students have the resources they need to succeed in school and beyond.

In Michigan, where 60 percent of charter school students are African American or Latino and nearly three out of four qualify for free or reduced price lunch -- a commonly-used measure of poverty -- charter schools are especially critical to the success of our most vulnerable students.

Charter schools should be -- and can be -- a more effective and valuable tool in closing our state's gaps in achievement and opportunity.

That's why our research team dedicated more than two years to mining hard-to-access data, including a half million state records, to study charter authorizers' records of school performance. The data included all authorizers, regardless of governance, from public universities, intermediate school districts and traditional public school districts. We strived to develop a rigorous methodology that would most accurately reflect authorizers' ability to promote student achievement, while not penalizing authorizers for opening schools in high-poverty communities.

What we found was staggering. Overall, "D" and "F" authorizers are maintaining 31 schools that do not offer as good as or better options to families, even than the traditional public school districts where the students live. These schools enroll more than 13,000 students across the state.

Michigan's approach to charter authorizing - which provides no performance standards or no real accountability for our authorizers -- has had devastating implications for Michigan's students. And Michigan is ground zero for national trends, as more states consider whether to allow charter schools to open and rapidly expand -- and how much quality should be a focus vs. charter growth.

We are strong believers in school choice. However, we recognize that choice alone will not solve our educational crisis. Leading education states such as Massachusetts demonstrate that choice serves students best when charters and their authorizers are held accountable for their performance, and must ensure the schools that they open, expand and oversee meet a high performance standard for student achievement.

Michigan has the opportunity to demonstrate charter schools' important role as part of a dynamic and effective public education system. Instead, by failing to hold charter authorizers accountable for their performance, today our state is a cautionary tale about the dangers of unregulated school choice.

We can no longer allow a sector that costs $1 billion each year in taxpayer money and educates 140,000 of our public school students to fall so far behind. Michigan's charter regulations fail to adequately ensure school quality, and even disincentive high standards for performance. Regardless of their schools' achievement, authorizers are guaranteed 3 percent of annual funding for each school in their jurisdiction, pocketing nearly $30 million in taxpayer money just last year.

Michigan needs more than wishful thinking to put its students on the path to success. It's time to consider what kind of standards and oversight infrastructure will ensure that charter authorizers are fulfilling their promise to students and their families.