When Michigan legislators debated the state's first proposed charter school law in 1993, critics charged that these new, relatively independent schools would be elitist, or even racist. "At risk" children, the critics said, would be left for the other public schools to handle. Advocates, on the other hand, argued that charter schools would be inclusive, and would provide a haven for students who were "falling through the cracks" in poorly performing public schools. A verdict on which view is closer to the truth is now beginning to take shape.
Under the law, any individual or organization can organize a charter school in Michigan but each school must ultimately be authorized by a local school board, an intermediate school district, a community college or a public university. The school then operates as an independent, nonprofit entity responsible to the body that authorized it. Freed of bureaucracy and the many strictures that regular public schools must endure, a charter school has considerable room for innovation but its admissions policies must be nondiscriminatory. If space cannot accommodate all students who wish to attend, students must be chosen by a random selection process.
A charter school is by definition a "school of choice" and automatically receives the state's "foundation grant" (approximately $5,500) for each pupil in attendance. Parents do not have to secure the approval of their home school district first to enroll a child in a charter school, wherever it may be located.
More than 10,000 students enrolled last fall at the 75 operational charter schools in Michigan. Forty of the schools are located in the metropolitan areas of Detroit, Lansing, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Saginaw, where the need for improvements and parental options has been great. Many of these schools have almost complete minority representation. Many schools have waiting lists and have had to use a lottery to select students from the huge response.
Central Michigan University has sponsored over 60 percent of the charter schools in the state. As of mid-1996, more than half-53.5 percent-of the students enrolled in those CMU-sponsored schools were African-American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian students. Caucasians made up 46.5 percent of the student population. Though these numbers reflect the composition of all Michigan charter schools almost precisely, they are much different from those for the state's public schools as a whole, which are 78 percent white and 17 percent African-American. Early indications are that an unexpectedly large number of students with disabilities are enrolled as well.
These facts are in line with what's happening across the country. The Hudson Institute's Education Excellence Network found that nationwide 63 percent of students attending charter schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia are minority group members. Fifty-five percent of the students were considered poor, while 19 percent have limited English abilities and 19 percent have disabilities.
Every charter school in Michigan is a fascinating story of perseverance and innovation. Livingston Developmental Academy in Howell and Macomb Academy in Clinton Township have missions to assist special and at risk students. Two schools in the Upper Peninsula-Bahweting in Sault St. Marie and Nah Tah Wahsh in Wilson-offer a Native American culture in the classroom. Sierra Leone in Detroit and Sankofa Shule of Lansing offer an African-American emphasis. Walter French Academy in Lansing typifies many of the schools in its successful implementation of high standards that produce visibly courteous and studious pupils.
The biggest barriers in starting a charter school include a lack of start-up funds and difficulties in securing and financing physical facilities. But those barriers are being overcome by dedicated parents and educational entrepreneurs who believe strongly in their missions. The most frequently cited reasons for chartering a school are "better teaching and learning for all kids," "running a school according to certain principles and philosophy," and "exploring innovative ways of running a school."
One of the earliest advocates of the charter school idea was the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The law is now doing precisely what the Center urged years ago: "It is vitally necessary to free up the supply side of education, both to enhance competition and to create new opportunities for children in their respective neighborhoods." Signs are abundant that the general success of Michigan's charter schools is already goading other schools to find ways to improve.
Only three years have passed since Michigan enacted its first charter school law. The citizens of the state should be pleased to know that the schools created to date are serving a growing student body and serving them well. The fears of opponents have been proven to be unfounded by the real-life results.