Kindergarten student
A kindergarten student at Saginaw Preparatory Academy grins as he listens for small-vowel sounds in a class exercise.

Largely favorable news about Michigan's charter public schools was nearly lost in a state board of education discussion this month about whether and how to regulate the schools further.

Required by law to submit an annual report on public school academies to the Legislature, board of education members reviewed a draft version of "Public School Academies at a Glance" during their February meeting. A final version is expected to be approved in March.

Student working
A student checks over her worksheet at Saginaw Preparatory Academy. The charter public school is considered a “beating the odds” school due to high standardized test scores.
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The 2008 report says that:

  • Charter students performed slightly better academically, on average, than students in conventional public schools in urban areas, though both groups lag behind state averages. About three-quarters of charter schools are located in urban areas.
  • Charter schools reported higher attendance and graduation rates than conventional urban schools, but lower than state averages.
  • Black elementary school students, on average, perform better in charter schools than in conventional public schools statewide.
  • High schools are a weak spot in charter performance, though charter schools that have been in operation longer show better results.
  • About 52 charter schools "beat the odds" by achieving high academic performance with large populations of disadvantaged students.
  • Charter schools receive less state funding than conventional schools — about $1,700 less per student than nearby urban schools and about $500 less per student than the state average.
  • Charter authorizers have closed 38 schools since the public school academy law was enacted.

"None of this is a surprise to us," Gary Naeyaert, vice president for public relations and legislative affairs for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, told Michigan Education Report. "It's an encouraging report that confirms ... why we have waiting lists and why enrollment is on the increase."

The report comes just as state lawmakers are discussing ways to improve performance in Detroit Public Schools, with some likely to push for more charter options. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he is "extraordinarily concerned" about the quality of education in DPS.

The report notes that some now view parents' right to choose the best school for their children as a matter of social justice.

Meanwhile, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Flanagan told state board members that a number of conventional school districts in Michigan that have failed to meet performance requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act are now considering chartering their own operations.

"I really think we are going to see an explosion of charters and it's going to be from traditional public schools wanting to charter schools," he said.

BEATING THE ODDS

In general, the draft report said, charter schools are gaining legitimacy in the Michigan school community and current state law "appears to be working well to support school and student achievement."

Stephanie Van Koevering, the department staff member who presented the report, said MDE staff paid on-site visits this year to some of the charter public schools that have turned in high academic performance among high poverty populations for three consecutive years.

"Whatever they were doing, we needed to get to the bottom of it," she told state board members. The department learned that the schools vary in approach and programming, but tend to make good use of assessment data, foster teacher-to-teacher interaction and have high expectations for students.

Saginaw Preparatory Academy is one example of a "beating the odds" school. Ninety-three percent of the students earned "proficient" scores in math on Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests in 2007 and 88 percent in reading. Nearly 93 percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches.

School leader Debra Jones told Michigan Education Report that high expectations, teamwork, small class sizes and professional development all play a role in that performance.

The school receives both scrutiny and support from its authorizer, Saginaw Valley State University, and its educational service provider, The Leona Group, as well as from the state education department, she said.

"There's a check and balance. I love it," she said. Jones said she tells students that education is "your light. You have a right to turn that light on."

MORE OVERSIGHT

Despite the favorable report, much of the state board discussion that followed the report's presentation focused on whether more oversight or regulation of charter schools is needed, particularly in the areas of charter school board member selection, financial disclosure and school location.

Charter school board members are appointed by the institution that grants the charter, in most cases a state university or community college. Those board members often hire a company — called an education service provider — to manage all or part of school operations. There are 53 such providers now under contract in Michigan, among them such firms as Edison Schools, The Leona Group and National Heritage Academies. The school pays the provider a fee for its services.

The report noted an ongoing argument over how much financial disclosure should be required of those providers. Some want details on how the fees are spent and how much of the fee, if any, is kept by the company as profit, the report said. Others argue that a well-performing school is evidence enough of money well spent.

But if education service providers come under more financial disclosure requirements, the report said, the question becomes whether the same rule should apply to any private firm providing services to any public school, from soda pop vendors to full-service educational companies.

"This is a key point we've even talked about in house," Flanagan said. "We need to be clear (in any recommendation) or the Legislature will throw it out."

In a related area, board president Kathleen Straus alleged that in some cases the education service provider "tells the (school) board what to do rather than the other way around, and that's what is very disturbing to some of us, including me."

Flanagan said the education department could provide more oversight in that area and others if the Legislature provides funding, as the draft report recommends.

"We are charged with this responsibility and we shouldn't back away from it," Flanagan said.

Van Koevering said that state law requires charter authorizers to establish a process for appointing school board members, and that the process is designed to prevent abuse by including such things as background checks, personal interviews and conflict of interest disclosures.

Formerly the executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, Van Koevering is now with the public school academy program within the MDE Office of School Improvement.

Charter public schools aren't the only educational organizations with appointed boards, Naeyaert pointed out. Many intermediate school district board members are appointed rather than elected at large; so are trustees at most of the state's public colleges and universities.

Van Koevering also noted that all public schools must file financial, academic and personnel information with the Center for Educational Performance and Instruction, including charter schools that contract with an educational service provider.

SCHOOL LOCATION

Charter school location also is an issue in some communities, the draft report noted, particularly in cases when charters open in one spot and then expand or relocate. Public school academies that opened in Warren and Southfield both faced criticism over noise and traffic in recent years.

"Somebody should establish rules on when it is appropriate to move a school," board member Casandra Ulbrich said. The draft report includes a recommendation that the Legislature grant such rulemaking authority to a department, though the department is not specified.

Meanwhile, legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives this month that would give local government more control over public school site plans in cases when the school does not provide transportation. Those cases likely would primarily involve charter schools.

POSITIVE NOTE

Board Vice President John Austin said, "On balance, I want to pull out from this report the growing contributions charters are making ... on educating our children."

"I seem some very encouraging substantive results," board member Reginald Turner said, pointing in particular to the fact that African-American children are performing better in charter schools than in conventional districts statewide.

"I think that's a significant statistic that should not be ignored," he said.

Turner said that parents have a right to transparency and accountability, too.

"At every school in the state of Michigan, parents should be able to walk into the office and pick up an easy-to-read piece of paper that shows how that school ... compares to the schools in the district ... and to schools statewide," he said. "Schools that aren't performing very well ought to be losing students."

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Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.