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Lots of A's - plus D's and F's - on a report card for charter authorizers

Feb 19, 2015

A kindergarten classroom poses near its manatee habitat chalk drawing at Chatfield School in Lapeer County
Credit Chatfield School

UPDATE: A pro-charter group says the methodology used in the Education Trust-Midwest report is deeply flawed.  A link to The Center for Education Reform's critique is included at the bottom of this article.

When Michigan's charter school experiment began 21 years ago, the hope was charters would be better than traditional public schools.

"The majority of them are actually not delivering on that promise," claims Amber Arellano of Education Trust-Midwest, a Kellogg Foundation-funded non-profit that says it is non-partisan, and "agnostic" on the question of who operates schools.

Consequences for schools, but not authorizers

Arellano points to Cesar Chavez Academy Elementary in Detroit. It's in the bottom 2% of schools in Michigan.

"Cesar Chavez is actually under-performing Detroit Public Schools, which is the worst performing school district in the country, according to the national assessment," she says.

The report says the authorizers that approve and maintain abysmally performing charter schools should be held accountable.

A bad school can be shut down. But nobody can shut down a bad authorizer -- not even the state schools superintendent.

But a gap in the state's charter school law prevents that from happening. A bad school can be shut down.  But nobody can shut down a bad authorizer -- not even the state schools superintendent.

And the authorizers get their 3% cut of the school's funding, no matter what, "so there's no incentive right now for authorizers to do a better job," claims Arellano.

Cesar Chavez was authorized by Saginaw Valley State University, which authorizes about 34 other charters, from the U.P. to Detroit.

The report gave Saginaw Valley a "D."

Craig Douglas is director of the university's charter authorizer. He criticizes the report for being shallow.

"The grading mechanism is a single shot -- it's emotionally charged -- and will it really lead to improvement, I don't know. We'll see."

Douglas is also concerned that the success stories are being overshadowed, like Chatfield School, which it charters in Lapeer County.

"They have parents wait-listed every year to get in. Has it improved education in that community? I submit it probably has."

It's difficult to manage many charters well

Most A's went to authorizers that have approved only one school, including Washtenaw Community College, Washtenaw ISD, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Macomb ISD. 

Wayne RESA, which authorized seven charters, also got an A, as did Hillsdale ISD, which has authorized two.
 

Oakland University and Detroit Public Schools got D's, and Northern Michigan and Eastern Michigan got F's.

  Four of the larger authorizers got B's:  Lake Superior State University, Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, and Bay Mills Community College.

Central Michigan, which charters more schools than any other authorizer in Michigan, got a C.

Oakland University and Detroit Public  Schools got D's, and Northern Michigan and Eastern Michigan got F's.

Arellano says it's true that many charters have been set up in distressed high poverty neighborhoods. But she says the best authorizers, like Grand Valley, still do well there.

"They're not using poverty as an excuse for not doing a good job," she said.

Is accreditation a solution?

Tim Wood is head of Grand Valley's charter school office.  

Wood says GVSU is picky about who runs its  charters, frequently seeking bids from national  charter operators with excellent reputations.

And it offers the chartered schools lots of support, like reading specialists.

"We think reading is the gateway to all other content," says Wood. "If a student can read at grade level, they can do science and math and social studies, etc."

Wood agrees there has to be a way to hold authorizers accountable, make them shut down schools in the bottom 5%, and stop the practice of "authorizer shopping." That's when a school that loses its charter with one authorizer goes to another with weaker standards to stay in business.

Wood thinks the best way is to require accreditation.

"Suspend authorizers who are not accredited," he says.

Support for a law requiring accreditation is gaining traction. The charter school industry seems to support the idea.

Meanwhile, Grand Valley isn't waiting for the state Legislature to act.

It's voluntarily asking for accreditation by a company called AdvancED this spring -- and urging other authorizers to do the same.   

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You can read The Center for Education Reform's critique of the Education Trust-Midwest report here.