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Article of Interest - Charter Schools

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Bridges4Kids LogoCharter Schools: 10 Years of Success and Failure
by Judy Putnam, Lansing State Journal, November 06, 2004
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A decade after the first charter schools opened in Michigan, the alternative public schools still inspire the same kind of debate they did in 1994.

Charter schools celebrated their 10-year anniversary this week, but even after a decade of operation, there's no consensus on their effectiveness.

"We are basically right where we started,'' said Michigan State University Professor David Plank, co-director of the Education Policy Center.

On one side are those who argue that charters are so flawed they need more accountability and oversight, Plank said. On the other are those who say they are so effective we should remove any barriers to allow more of them.

Some 82,000 students attend 216 charter schools, up from just a dozen schools and 1,200 students in 1994.

Michigan has the fifth-largest number of charters in the country, with about 7 percent of the nation's charters.

More than 1,500 charter enthusiasts celebrated the movement at a two-day conference in Lansing this week. Honored were 10 schools that opened in 1994 and 26 schools that opened in 1995.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins said charter schools are a lot like other schools. Some are great, some need a lot of improvement.

"Most of the positive or negative things you say about charters can be attributed to our traditional public schools, too,'' he said. "The focus needs to be on quality and on academic achievement whether it's traditional or charter.''

Charter supporters say the competition has inspired traditional schools to perform better. Charters serve some of the neediest kids in Michigan, and while test scores on average are below those of traditional public schools, the gap begins to close the longer kids stay in charters, they say.

What has changed over the decade is the general acceptance by the public, said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

"This is part of the educational system, and an important part of it,'' he said. "People are embracing the idea that charters are part of the system."

Quisenberry said critics' fears that charter schools would "cream" the highest-achieving students have been proven wrong.

In fact, 58 percent of charter students statewide are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch compared with 33 percent in traditional public schools statewide. More than half of the state's charter school students are minorities, compared with 19 percent statewide.

But critics say charters simply have failed to revolutionize public education.

"The jury, frankly, is still out about what a difference charter schools are going to make on the public school landscape,'' said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, spokeswoman for the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. Most charter schools have nonunion employees.

Trimer-Hartley and others say they still hear stories about charter schools discouraging special education students from enrolling, even though they are supposed to be open to all students.

Watkins said it's hard to say.

"Does some of it happen? Sure. But let's take a look at traditional schools. Some of them will complain about losing 300 to a charter but you won't hear a peep out of them when 3,000 go to the streets" and drop out, Watkins said.

Charters are public schools, also called public school academies. As part of the "choice" movement in education. By giving parents choice, the theory goes, schools are forced to compete and improve.

In Michigan, they must be authorized by a university, community college, public school district or an intermediate school district, which can keep up to 3 percent of the state funds . The per-pupil state grant follows the student, ranging from $6,700 to $7,200.

About three-quarters of Michigan's schools are operated by for-profit management companies.

Mike Flanagan, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, says he's a "cautious supporter" of charter schools. But he doesn't like the unfettered for-profit nature of Michigan's charters.

"I think it opens the door for scam artists,'' he said. He would like to see a law limiting the profit from charter schools.

Michigan law caps the number of university-chartered schools at 150, but there's no cap on the other authorizers on the number of charter schools in their own district. That's created a loophole by Bay Mills Community College, a tribal college in the Upper Peninsula, that has the entire state as its "district." Bay Mills is now the third-largest authorizer, and is expected to continue to authorize more charter schools.

In terms of test scores and federal "Adequate Yearly Progress'' measures, charters' performance depends on which piece of the picture you're looking at.

Among charter schools, 34 percent didn't make AYP for at least two years, compared with 16 percent of traditional public schools, according to a recent Michigan Department of Education report.

Charter students also scored below state averages in all grades and subjects, according to an analysis by MAPSA of fourth- and eighth-grade MEAP scores.

But in Detroit, charters performed the same or better as Detroit Public Schools in six of 10 subjects in four grades. In Flint, charter scores were the same or better than Flint Community Schools in seven subjects, while in Grand Rapids, charters exceeded or tied Grand Rapids Public Schools in nine of 10 subjects in four grades.

Additionally, the MAPSA analysis shows that students at charters open just one to four years, are farther behind than students at charters open seven or more years. That shows students are making greater gains the longer they stay in charters, Quisenberry said.

Jim Sandy, executive director of the Michigan Business Leaders for Education Excellence, said charters have had mixed success. Some excel, some fail, he said.

But even the failures show the system works, he said. Twenty-three charters have been forced to close by their boards or authorizers.

"Those that have been abysmal failures are gone. You can be an abysmal failure as a traditional school and nothing will happen to you,'' he said.

-- Contact Judy Putnam at (517) 487-8888 x 232 or e-mail her at


Charter authorizers:

Central Michigan University: 56

Grand Valley State University: 28

Bay Mills Community College: 28

Saginaw Valley State University: 18

Ferris State University: 16

Eastern Michigan University: 8

Oakland University: 8

Lake Superior State: 7

Northern Michigan University: 5

Kellogg Community College: 1

Washtenaw Community College: 1

In addition, 29 schools are chartered by intermediate school districts, including two each in Hillsdale and Saginaw ISDs, and one each in Bay Arenac and Washtenaw ISDs.

Local school districts charter 11 schools, including one in Grand Rapids and one in Wyoming.


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