Detroit Free Press: Time to Take Action to Fix Charter Schools in Michigan (guest column)


July 20, 2014

By Harrison Blackmond

The Free Press’ recent investigation into Michigan’s charter schools brought to the forefront what we in the education community have been talking about for years: accountability, oversight and quality.

The Free Press unearthed some chilling facts about the state of education in Michigan, and it’s time to take action to address what isn’t working.

Charter schools in Michigan and across the country are essential options that give students and their parents the opportunity to choose an educational path that best fits their needs. But, as we’ve seen in the report, they are far from perfect.

To me, the mandate is clear: We need to improve our charter schools.

Charter authorizers, mostly universities, play a huge role behind the scenes but often escape notice when things go downhill. It is the authorizers’ job to decide which charter schools get to open and which do not. It’s time to bring them into the spotlight, because there is too much at stake if the blame for Michigan’s charter woes falls on the wrong shoulders.

In 2011, when legislators introduced the bill that ultimately removed the cap on charters, my organization, Democrats for Education Reform, along with EdTrust Midwest, the Detroit Regional Chamber, StudentsFirst, and Excellent Schools Detroit, tried to convince lawmakers that charter authorizers need incentives to ensure that they grant charters only to schools with management companies that have excellent track records.

Unfortunately, charter authorizers and others fought hard to keep that language out. They won, and now we are all facing the consequences.

Given the current environment, it’s no wonder proven charter operators such as Rocketship and KIPP seem to avoid opening schools in Michigan.

Our charter schools have done some amazing things: They inspire teachers, empower great administrators, and most important, produce incredible outcomes for students. With good management companies and proper oversight, charter schools can provide kids with an extraordinary educational experience.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) regularly updates its guiding principles and standards to help authorizers maintain “responsible oversight of charter schools by ensuring that schools have both the autonomy to which they are entitled and the public accountability for which they are responsible.”

NACSA’s guidelines clearly encourage the consistent involvement of authorizers in the charters they approve. But in Michigan, it seems many of our authorizers disappear until it’s time to renew a school’s contract, leaving it to languish without proper quality controls — and it’s the kids who suffer as a result.

We should encourage charter authorizers to play a bigger role in the life cycles of the schools they create.

By establishing real accountability benchmarks and visible evaluative policies, they can ensure new schools have the support and guidance needed to give their students the best education possible. By thoroughly investigating the management companies that seek to open schools in Michigan, they can make the state a national model for charter school quality.

In turn, the Michigan Department of Education must take a more active role in overseeing the state’s authorizers.

A simple strategy like that used in Minnesota, where charter authorizers are evaluated by the state every five years, would be an effective way to ensure oversight across all channels.

It’s not too late to demand increased accountability from charter schools, and increased visibility from charter authorizers. Every child deserves an excellent education from a great school — charter or district — with the quality controls necessary to make that possible.

Harrison Blackmond is state director of Democrats for Education Reform Michigan.

Read the full post here.