Charter Schools

Michigan Charter School Authorizers Finally Need to Be Held Accountable

Having spent a good chunk of my professional and personal life (much to the chagrin of my friends and family who, apparently, have interests outside of education policy) complaining about the lack of authorizer accountability in Michigan, I could not be more excited about the Accountability for All report out of Education Trust-Midwest. The report takes a close, and necessary, look at the performance of several charter school authorizers in Michigan and issued a letter grade based on several factors: the quality of the school operators in the authorizers’ portfolios, meeting a statewide quality standard and the ability to improve chronically failing schools. (Important to note: Not all authorizers received a grade—only those who had enough available data for the analysis. The authorizers included serve about 96 percent of charter school students in Michigan.) There were some positive findings in the report: Six authorizers received an “A” for their portfolio, with some of these folks responsible for some of the best charter performance in the state. Honey Creek Community School in Ann Arbor, for example, boasts 96 percent proficiency in reading for its students. These high-performing authorizers should serve as an example for others in the state who, quite frankly, are not doing enough for students. Given that the original promise of charter schools was to provide a better educational alternative to traditional public schools, it is paramount that authorizers and their schools are held to a high standard of performance. Unfortunately, it’s clear that this isn’t happening. A few key take-aways from the report:
  • About 20 percent of the almost 150 charter schools that opened since 2011 are authorized by “D” or “F” authorizers.
  • In the 2013-2014 school year, about half of ranked charter schools were in the bottom quarter of all schools statewide, based on academic performance.
  • 39 percent of charter schools failed Education Trust-Midwest’s minimum statewide quality standard.
The most striking to me, however, is the disservice being done to students who need the most attention. Consider this: Detroit Public Schools (DPS) ranks  last in the nation in 8th-grade math scores among African-American students on the NAEP. On the statewide MEAP assessment, the majority of charter districts within Detroit (65 percent) perform  worse than DPS among African-American students in math. This is inexcusable, but not unsolvable. Education Trust-Midwest makes several strong recommendations, including:
  • Accountability for charter authorizing decisions. Authorizers that consistently do not make good authorizing decisions should be subject to formal sanctions, including warnings, suspensions and—for failing authorizers—possible dissolution.
  • Accountability for operator performance. Authorizers should not be allowed to approve new contracts or expansion for consistently low-performing charter operators.
  • Transparent, limited charter contracts. Michigan must require consistent reporting among charter school boards and operators regarding profit margins and how much dollars are spent in charter schools, to assure Michigan residents that their tax dollars are being spent appropriately.
I urge Michigan policymakers to take note of this report but, more important, to take action. With more than 140,000 students in Michigan attending charter schools, this simply is not an issue that can wait any longer.  
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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