Another Charter School Critic Misses the Mark

Accountability? Failed charter schools are closed; no record of same for district schools

An article in Bridge Magazine is the latest to question the value of charter schools in Michigan and point the finger at an alleged lack of oversight. Bridge repeats a claim by anti-charter interests that Michigan is the “wild west” of charter schools.

The column by The Center for Michigan founder Phil Power argues that Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be the U.S. secretary of education, should advocate for more oversight of Michigan charters so she can have an easier confirmation hearing. He writes, “Unfortunately, Michigan does not seem to have followed examples of states with the best charters. The reasons for our lagging are pretty clear. One key to success is tough oversight.”

Power continues: “Michigan does not require charter operators to have a proven track record before they are authorized to open schools. Moreover, our state does relatively little to discipline poor performers.”

ForTheRecord says: Power is right that Michigan parents want school choice for their children, but he’s wrong that poorly performing charters aren’t disciplined and that the answer is more oversight.

Power does not mention that in Michigan, 122 public school academies — the state’s term for charter schools — have been closed in the last two decades, mostly for a lack of academic or financial viability, or low enrollment. He also overlooks the fact that the state has never closed a traditional public school for poor performance.

In addition, the 2016 law authorizing a state bailout of the Detroit public school system mandates closure for any Detroit charter school whose student growth is in the bottom 5 percent for three years running. The consequences for failed public schools are far less certain.

The same law established charter-authorizer accreditation requirements for opening a school in Detroit and banned low-performing charter school operators from “authorizer shopping” if their current authorizing institution cancels their contract. Most of those authorizers are state universities, which also doesn’t quite square with “wild west.”

And of course parents are the ultimate line of accountability, since no child is required to attend a charter school. Children leave district schools for charter schools because that’s what their parents chose.

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Detroit Prep is a top-rated and economically and racially diverse charter school in the city. It's growth means it needs to move out from a church basement and into a new location. Nearby is a former Detroit Public Schools building, sitting empty for years. But, worried about competition, the public school district refused to sell. For years, district and local government officials in Detroit had worked to block public charter schools. They pushed legislation at the Michigan Capitol to hinder them, refused to sell to them, transferred surplus buildings from the district to the city government and imposed deed restrictions on property sales to private developers. All of it was aimed to hinder or even prevent charter school choice outside the confines of the Detroit school district.

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