The verdict is still out on charter performance, innovation
As the state Legislature contemplates taking up HB 4800, which would raise the limit on the number of charter schools in Michigan, it would seem to be doing so without regard to the charter movement's current track record. The move to expand charters comes at a time when new data show poor performance on the part of the charter schools we already have, not to mention the potential for millions of dollars of new spending at a time of fiscal crisis. So far, charters have failed at the two main objectives that spawned the movement: increasing student achievement and fostering educational innovation.
Several comprehensive studies of the charter school movement have been undertaken in recent years to help quantify the performance of these schools. The most recent of these, a 2002 Brookings Institution study, clearly shows that students in Michigan charter schools are performing at a significantly lower level than students in traditional public schools. The study concluded that, in many cases, charter school students were a year and a half behind their traditional public school counterparts.
Apologists for charter schools have responded to this data by pointing out that most charters serve disadvantaged children; therefore it should be no surprise that their performance is lower when compared to the overall population of traditional public schools. This assertion fails on two counts.
First, a 2002 charter study by the Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo compared like socio-economic groups in charter schools and traditional public schools, and found a similar disparity in academic performance to that found by the Brookings study in this specific sub-group.
Second, parental involvement is one of the strongest factors in assuring high student achievement. This would lead one to believe that the increased parental involvement of parents selecting their child's charter school would be a significant advantage for student achievement compared to the student's peers in traditional public schools. However, both the Brookings and Upjohn studies deny that this advantage exists.
In regard to fostering innovation, the aforementioned studies and two others from Western Michigan University in July of 2000 faulted charters for not bringing educationally innovative methods to the classroom. A frequently-cited cause for this lack of innovation is the desire, on the part of for-profit educational management companies, to hold down costs by standardizing the approach they take from school to school. Innovation is expensive, and reduces profitability. It is time to challenge the notion that using for-profit companies to manage charter schools is a good idea, for the very reason that maximizing profit works against innovation.
In light of the information we now have, it is hard to see why we would want to create more charter schools when they have failed to foster innovation or improve student achievement.
If this were not bad enough, the management companies that run many charter schools contend that they are not required to open their books so that taxpayers can see how their money is being spent. This doesn't sound like charter schools' vaunted "greater accountability."
Before raising the current cap on charter schools, several things must occur: We must: (1) understand the factors that contribute to the lack of achievement on the part of charter school students; (2) put into place an accountability system that will provide transparency and a means to evaluate all aspects of the performance of these schools (without these, we risk placing an increasing group of students at an academic disadvantage); 3) revisit the notion of for-profit management companies because they seem to be anathema to innovation; and (4) ensure equity of access. The fact is that very few charter schools accept or are equipped for special-needs students. Yes, these students cost more to educate, but as public schools, charters have a responsibility to educate all children whose parents desire this option.
Before we risk more of our children's academic achievement and before we commit increasingly scarce resources to the charter experiment, we owe it to the children of this state, and to ourselves, to have these questions answered.
Frank Reid is a chief engineer for Johnson Controls, Inc. Automotive Systems Group in Plymouth, Mich. He serves on the Farmington Public Schools Board of Education, the board of the Oakland County School Boards Association, and the Legal Trust Fund Board for the Michigan Association of School Boards.