Proponents of charter schools continue to want to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in Michigan, particularly those servicing Detroit. This would be a serious mistake.

Charter schools are not a panacea. In fact, they may prove ultimately to be the entities that cripple the traditional institutions, which will most likely remain responsible for educating the bulk of our children, the traditional public school.

For starters, too many existing charter schools are operating with teachers who do not have valid teaching certificates. Many of these teachers also do not meet the standards for being rated "highly-qualified" as stipulated under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which is a staple of the Bush administration’s education initiative.

While many charter school teachers have gained limited experience teaching as substitutes, especially in Detroit, others simply have been found to be relying on knowledge gained through other types of work experience. This widespread lack of pedagogical training in charter schools has a direct correlation to the performance of their students.

Recent studies have revealed that the majority of students attending charter schools have fared worse on standardized achievement tests than their traditional public school counterparts. What makes this fact particularly alarming is that most charter schools engage in what is known as "creaming," accepting only students who tend to perform better academically and behaviorally in school, and ignoring those who may have special needs and therefore cost more to educate. But studies are showing that even the creamed students are not performing as well in charter schools.

Finally, charter schools tend to lose students after "count day," when parents, realizing that a charter school was not all it was cracked up to be, return their children to a traditional neighborhood public school. Unfortunately the funding does not follow. This forces the neighborhood school to educate more students with fewer resources.

The education of our children is much too important for them to be used as financial pawns for "for-profit" organizations, especially in today’s global economy. Viable alternatives are fine when there is a level playing field with comparable expectations, requirements and standards.

But dividing already limited resources between traditional public schools and charter schools services neither entity adequately. The same energy and resources used to try to expand the number of charter schools, and in essence water down the quality of public education, should be used to invest fully in traditional public schools where the majority of students (approximately 90 percent) will receive their education.

Janna K. Garrison is president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Charter public school facts

Michigan moved toward allowing charter public schools in 1993, when the legislature overhauled the School State Aid act. Coupled with the passage of Proposal A in 1994, school funding shifted to a “foundation allowance,” or a per-pupil amount of tax dollars, that follows a student to whatever public school they attend. With the advent of such a system, limited school choice was born in Michigan, allowing parents in participating districts to choose what school their child will attend, rather than sending them to the school to which they had been assigned. Charter public schools, also called “public school academies,” receive the minimum foundation allowance for each student enrolled, and have no physical geographic boundaries, nor can they levy extra millages. There was no cap on charter public schools until 1996, when the legislature imposed a graduated system, raising the cap from 85 that year to the current 150. The cap only applies to charter public schools authorized by universities. Conventional school districts, local educational service agencies and community colleges can also authorize charter public schools. Today, there are 229 authorized charter public schools in Michigan.

Reader Comments

Where do I begin? Janna Garrison's viewpoint is riddled with errors and inconsistencies.

Her statement insinuating that charters are not using certified teachers is absolutely false. This month, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) reported that charter schools have a greater percentage of certified teachers than does the Detroit Public School system that Ms. Garrison represents (95% vs. 84%). Her statement is irresponsible and untrue. (I am sure that steps have been taken to edit that report.)

Charter schools are obeying the NCLB mandate of certified teachers, however inconclusive the practice may be. I quote a recent MER (Winter 2006) that highlights the work of Professor Sam Peavey from the School of Education - University of Illinois. "After 50 years of research, he could not find a significant correlation between teacher certification and student achievement."

It's symbolism over substance. If Ms. Garrison is basing her bias on certified teaching equals student learning, she is misguided on both accounts. The MDE reports that charter schools students are learning at an equal or greater rate than other students in the same district. Her claim as to underperformance of charter school students is incorrect.

Finally, her accusation of "creaming" the best students is ridiculously wrong. Most of the students that choose a charter school, and "choose" is the operative word, is because they are not learning in their local assigned school. The facts are very clear. Charters have a higher population of students who qualify or free or reduced lunches. Most assuredly, many students and parents are exercising a choice for unique schools, but as Ms. Garrison says, over 90% of the students are in "public schools." Why can't others have a choice? Isn't choice one of Ms. Garrison's values?

Ms. Garrison believes that public schools are the answer, but educational choice whether it be private, home or public schools combined with charters, vouchers, or tax credits is offering a better education for all kids and is superior to the one-size fits all mentality. The facts continue to prove it so. Let's open the doors to real reform. Our future depends upon it.
- Chas Nunez, board member, Windemere Park Charter Academy, Lansing, Mich.

I agree with Janna Garrison; Michigan should not lift the cap on charter schools. Charter schools drain funding away from traditional public schools. This only hurts the majority of our youth who attend public schools. We certainly don’t need to spread the money any thinner.

Funding is the number one issue for the school districts of Southwest Michigan where I live and work. Our school board is often faced with cutting programs in order to balance the budget. So many electives have been dropped, our students are forced to take classes they have no interest in. In addition, the early Elementary Art, Music and Physical Education teachers were laid off two years ago. This year we instituted Pay to Play to help fund the athletic program.

I believe if school funding were not being compromised by charter schools, public schools would be able to offer a broader range of learning experiences to students. As it is now, public education is being coerced by its financial circumstances into providing a very narrow education for our students.
- Lisa Roster, art teacher, South Haven High School.

I agree with Ms. Garrison's position, but not necessarily with her rationale. The "elephant-in-the-living-room" of charter school proponents is simply this: study after study confirms that students enrolled in charter schools perform no better than students enrolled in traditional public schools. We've spent a great deal of time and money creating the opportunity for "choice" in education, however the choice we have created is outcome-neutral in terms of the one thing charters were supposed to improve: student performance. In exchange for this "choice", we've given up local control of the charters - to date, not one single charter has a publicly elected board; the State Board of Education seems to be genuinely confused about its ultimate authority over the charters and their authorizers; many of our public school systems are now irretrievably broken (and for no benefit); charter schools engage in highly-questionable-yet-unquestioned business practices with their management companies; and the student populations in charter schools are more often than not divided along racial lines. 40 ears of integration has been washed away in less than decade without so much as a whimper.

When it comes to charter schools, the legislature was sold a pig in a poke. If anything, the State needs to require much more of charter schools. The cap on the number of charter schools should not be lifted until charter schools can demonstrate that they can live up to the bill of goods they sold us ten years ago.
- Eileen Peck, reader, Ypsilanti, Mich.

I wonder if Ms. Garrison has actually visited a charter school. I have visited two, both in urban settings (Flint and Detroit), and could not help but be impressed with what I saw. Indeed, the students wore uniforms, were polite and well spoken, and most important, were engaged in the classroom. I have been fortunate to be able to send my child to a private school, where she has excelled in every respect. Sadly, the great majority of parents in our urban districts do not have the ability to make the choice I did, and as a result, their children suffer in these school systems. The statistics speak for themselves in every catagory of measurement, whether it be grade point average, graduation rate, MEAP scores, ACT and SAT scores, college placement, or whatever one chooses to look at. Fortunately, charter schools have offered many students and parents something they have not had so far; a real choice.

And like any good union member, Ms. Garrison is against choice and competition. I don't know what source she is quoting with respect to charter school students faring poorly on standardized tests, but I haven't read one study to affirm her assertion. If anything, her claim (which I am not conceding) would only serve to validate my assertion that the inner city public school model is a failed one, and given time, those scores would improve in the charter school setting. In addition, what she fails to understand is that if charter schools do not perform, they go out business. Sadly, the attitude of Ms. Garrison and her union are a major contributing force to the Detroit school system going out of business, so to speak.
- Glenn Watson, reader, Grosse Pointe, Mich.

When I first moved to Michigan from Texas in 2004, I began my teaching career in a charter school. I have to admit that it was possibly the worst year of my life. From poorly trained adminstrators, irate parents, children who didn't care to be at school, crumbling buildings, lack of supplies and support, I felt completely lost and trapped in a system that was lacking in structure. I have since left for greener pastures, but that experience truly haunts me to this day. It almost prevented me from staying in education. Many charter schools have ideas of grandeur that are lacking the proper means to excell beyond public schools. It is highly disappointing to see children leaving public schools to attend other schools and to watch our beloved public school suffer.
- Kate Kozak, kindergarten teacher, Novi Community Schools.

Ms.Garrison writes very well on this touchy topic. Often parents are looking for the "quick fix" and Charter Schools advertise to provide this. Ms. Garrison states "Charter schools are not a panacea. In fact, they may prove ultimately to be the entities that cripple the traditional institutions, which will most likely remain responsible for educating the bulk of our children, the traditional public school." I couldn't have stated that better myself! Michigan should NOT lift the cap.
- Monica Jerema, Taylor Federation of Teachers. Wyandotte, Mich.

I agree with the article. If public schools are still required to be the organization responsible for educating our children, we need to help out the public schools. Charter schools should also have the same state and federal legislation, such as teacher certification. Again, if public schools is going to be responsible for education, let's fix up our schools.
- Kim Browning, secretary, Pinconning Area Schools.

I do not feel the cap on Charter Schools should be lifted until the current academies can be reviewed more thoroughly. Each charter school is considered a 'school district' unto itself and has its own school board directing policy. This type of oversight can generate a great deal on inconsistancy, even among schools whose charters are granted by the same university. As a general assumption, we expect a student in grade 6 in academy A to be at the same skill level as another 6th grade student in academy B; Who should both be at the same skill level, or higher from the academy's claims, as the 6th grade student in public school C. Until we are sure this is actually happening I don't think the charter school community should be expanded.

The original charter school legislation is not quite 10 years old, that is not even long enough to produce a first graduating all charter school class grades 1 through 12. We, as a tax paying public, need to see that our dollars are producing at least an equal, if not superior, product for our public investment in these academies. Charter schools addressed a serious concern in our educational process and introduced an element of competition into the mix that had never been seen before. Nothing improves any process like competition, the fight for your very survival. The here-to-fore unchallenged heirarchy of many school administrations and teachers unions needed shaking up, and the charter school movement has accomplished that. We cannot, however, let the cure become worse than the disease. It cannot hurt to hold the line on the number of charter schools authorized until we are sure the final outcome is what we really want.
- David Wejrandt, former board president, Conner Creek Academy East.

The article made a good argument for not increasing the charter cap. Important details neglected in some other articles, “creaming” were included in this article which was valuable. It would be nice to have data to support the arguments.
- Christine Annese, assistant superintendent, Whitehall schools.

I agree with Ms. Garrison, but for different reasons. Charter schools are not the answer to school reform because they do not represent true school choice. True school choice would have the tax money follow the student, no matter what school was desired – public, private, parochial, or charter. And before anyone gives the argument that religiously based schools should not be eligible for taxpayer dollars due to the separation of church and state, let me ask you this: Did your children attend school on December 25, a religious holiday? I seriously doubt it. Many schools in the metro Detroit area have vacation days for the Jewish High Holy days in September as well. You can’t apply the separation of church and state argument selectively – you either observe religion or you don’t. If public schools were truly secular, then everyone would be expected to attend school on December 25.

True school choice would allow each family to choose the school that best fits their needs. Charter schools are hurting private schools as well. Enrollment is down at many private schools that are in the same area as a charter academy. With our economy being what it is, parents see the students in uniforms and read “no tuition” and they sign up, without really looking at the school. Charter schools are being used as a Band-Aid for the problems in our public school systems, yet they have some of the same problems. Charter schools have many uncertified teachers, as do many public schools in lower-income areas. As many have pointed out, each charter school is an entity unto itself – there is little or no outside evaluation. Ms. Garrison correctly states that many charter families become disenchanted with the schools, realizing that uniforms and “no tuition” do not necessarily mean a quality education. They leave after the first marking period, meaning that their state money stays in the charter, even though the student does not. Opening new charter schools and spreading that money around further will hurt everyone involved. Our state’s system of school funding is not based on anything solid – the sales tax is only used when goods are being purchased, and in Michigan, with our above average unemployment and completely stagnant economy -- those purchases are not forthcoming.

Michigan needs to make some tough choices and overhaul the entire educational system. True competition would result from using the state’s per pupil spending at ANY school that a family chooses. That money should also not be based on a single “count day” in September (on which many schools bribe their students with I-Pod raffles and the like to show up). It should be determined by averaging several numbers – previous enrollment, present enrollment, and perhaps the average of a series of “count days.”
- Katie Geary, former principal, St. Bede Catholic School, Waterford, Mich.