School Choice

Here's to Making Charter Schools Better in Michigan

Being from Michigan, generally, is a wonderful thing. Great people, Great Lakes, you get the picture. When it’s not so wonderful, however, is when you have to explain to other Michiganders that, in some other states, people actually like charter schools. There are states where charters are well-regulated, where they're held to high standards, where controversies are the exception—not the rule. For the past few years, thankfully, there’s been a steady drumbeat across the state, pushing those in education and in policymaking to improve our charter sector. While a series in the Detroit Free Press on charter school activities was certainly a catalyst for bringing attention to the issue to the broader public, Michigan’s Education Trust–Midwest has been a loud voice in pushing for improvement in the sector. An advocate of charters and school choice, Ed Trust–Midwest is steadfast in its stance on quality choice. Last year, the group put out a report “grading” local authorizers on how well they do their job. Specifically, they analyzed each authorizer on decisions around charter school openings, operator quality, whether they set performance standards, and ability to improve failing schools. Fundamentally, strong authorizers don’t approve weak charter applications. When a charter school fails, they close it down. If an operator with a lot of failing schools wants to open more, they say no. But that is not the way it works in Michigan. Ed Trust–Midwest put out another report for 2016, updating Michiganders on the progress of the charter sector. The good news is that it seems as though “efforts to bring greater public scrutiny and transparency” are helping improve practices, albeit marginally so. Six authorizers across the state, including Washtenaw Community College (right down the street from me!), received “A” grades and several more received “B” grades. Unfortunately, there were four authorizers—Detroit Public Schools, Saginaw Valley State University, Eastern Michigan University (...also right down the street from me, yikes), and Northern Michigan University—that received “D” or “F” grades. Over 20,000 students attend schools overseen by these four authorizers, and about 20 percent of Michigan charter school openings between fall 2011 and 2015 were opened by “D” and “F” authorizers. Authorizers exist to open and oversee new and existing charter schools. This is an incredible responsibility, one that far too many authorizers appear not to take seriously in Michigan. They should be holding their schools to a high standard of performance, closing down schools that aren’t up to snuff, and sending those students to a place better equipped to educate. Unfortunately for the students of Michigan, not only do some authorizers fail to hold schools accountable, but the authorizers themselves face little to no accountability for their own performance. In other states, charter school authorizers are reviewed (regularly and by a state body) and chronically low-performing authorizers are sanctioned for their performance. I truly believe in the promise of charter schools and hope for them to succeed in Michigan. Students across this state already face enough—they should at least have the ability to trust that the education choices provided to them are high quality.
Valentina Payne
Valentina Payne joined Bellwether Education Partners in 2021 as chief of staff to Andy Rotherham on the External Relations team. Prior to Bellwether, she spent seven years at brightbeam, where she most recently served as its chief growth officer, overseeing operations, finance, fundraising, and strategic growth of the organization.

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