In Detroit schools, nothing succeeds like failure

Conventional schools get more money to do worse, while charter schools do better with less

Charter schools outperform conventional public schools in Detroit despite getting less money. And many are performing as well as the best open enrollment schools in Michigan. Their success at doing more with less should be rewarded, but that’s not the case.

The best open-enrollment middle schools in Detroit are charter schools, according to U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of Michigan middle schools. The top six open-enrollment schools on their list are:

  • Detroit Merit Charter Academy
  • Warrendale Charter Academy
  • Detroit Edison Public School Academy
  • Detroit Enterprise Academy
  • University Prep Science and Math Middle School
  • Bridge Academy West

The top three elementary schools in Detroit are also charter schools. They even ranked higher than schools that selectively enroll their students based on academic performance or other factors. The winners include Detroit Prep, Oakland International Academy and Detroit Enterprise Academy.

The national news publisher ranks each school based on its performance on state reading and math assessments. Its ranking formula also considers the socioeconomic makeup of the school’s student population. This means the top-ranked schools are doing a better job educating their students than schools with similar demographics.

The M-STEP assessment is used to rank Michigan schools on their students’ reading and math proficiency. In Detroit, nearly 90% of public elementary and middle school students lacked proficiency or were only partially proficient in English Language Arts on the test last year. The results were worse for these same students on the math assessment.

Only 5% of Detroit eighth-graders were proficient in reading in 2022, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as The Nation’s Report Card. And their performance has only declined over the past 10 years.

But the top-performing charter schools in Detroit succeeded at helping their students learn more than their peers at conventional public schools, despite having less money to work with. The top-ranked open-enrollment middle school, Detroit Merit Charter Academy, only received $12,831 in per-pupil funding for the 2021-22 school year. That’s 29% less than conventional schools received for each student in the Detroit Public School Community District — and the district spent nearly twice as much per pupil in 2022 as Detroit Merit Charter Academy did.

The downward trend in public school performance despite drastic increases in K-12 funding is not unique to Detroit. The past 10 years have been characterized by record spending on public schools statewide and declining or stagnant performance at best.

But the top charter schools in Detroit are doing more with less. Many charter schools, especially those in urban areas, outperform local district schools with similar student populations. At-risk students and those from minority backgrounds often learn more when they attend a charter school instead of a conventional school, according to a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University in 2023.

Charter schools outside Detroit outperform conventional public schools, too. Some charters are independently run while others are operated by management companies, such as National Heritage Academies. Among Michigan’s top 41 middle schools are 10 charter schools managed by NHA, which operates more than 100 charter schools in nine states. Their top charter schools are performing as well as the best open-enrollment middle schools in the most advantaged districts in Michigan.

One of NHA’s schools is PrepNet Virtual Academy, which offers online K-12 schooling for Michigan residents. Like the best charter schools in Detroit, it receives less funding than conventional district schools. Even so, this and other online charter schools can expect a cut in per-pupil funding in the upcoming year.

That’s because Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget proposal recommends a 20% reduction in the foundation allowance these schools receive on their students’ behalf. All conventional public schools, on the other hand, will receive a 2.5% increase, or $241 more per student, if the governor’s budget is approved. A cut to online charter schools has been tried several years in a row – by the current and former administrations – but the Legislature has yet to approve it.

But just like other charter schools, online education charters are already struggling to do more with less. The disparate treatment of these schools will hurt some of the state’s most at-risk students who because of various conditions —health problems, mental illness, bullying, homelessness or other social issues — have no other option.

Michigan’s charter schools produce better outcomes for many of the state’s residents. Whether they’re helping Detroit students learn more than their local district school can or providing a virtual option for homeless students, charter schools are achieving more with less funding. Policymakers should applaud their efforts, not decrease their funding even more.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.