Since our inception in 2010, Excellent Schools Detroit has been a fierce proponent of school choice and high academic standards, and we work in partnership with charter and private schools leaders, Detroit Public Schools, and the Education Achievement Authority. If you serve Detroit kids, we care about your success and today 50,000 Detroit kids attend charter schools. For many, that’s a good thing. Excellent Schools Detroit’s annual Scorecard (Scorecard.ExcellentSchoolsDetroit.org) shows that some of the highest performing schools in Detroit are charters. These include New Paradigm for Education’s Detroit Edison Public School Academy, National Heritage Academies’ Detroit Merit, Detroit 90/90’s University Preparatory Science and Math, and Cornerstone’s Madison Carver, to name just a few.
But the Detroit Free Press has launched a long overdue conversation about the shortcomings of Michigan’s charter school law, and what has quickly devolved into an underperforming and broken education system. As an early pioneer in establishing a charter sector, Michigan created an authorizing climate driven by ideology and focused on growth, not quality, dispersing and diluting the regulatory function across multiple statewide institutions. Authorizers are expected to regulate schools, serving as gatekeepers, but predictably they’ve become competitors with each other and local districts for kids and the money that comes with them. Today, Detroit has 12 of these gatekeepers opening and closing schools wherever, whenever, and for whatever reason they’d like. You walk through those gates and you find a flea market of schools.
Despite the many good actors, our laws allow low performers and bad actors to flourish at the expense of Detroit’s kids and Michigan’s taxpayers. We could add to the examples listed by the Free Press: Earlier this spring, George Crockett Academy, a persistently failing school, mysteriously jumped authorizers and got a new contract just as its management company was being forced out. Maybe Crockett’s new authorizer, Northern Michigan University, saw something in The Leona Group, L.L.C.’s track record that Ferris, or other authorizers, hadn’t. From 450 miles away, it’s unlikely. Or, consider that SABIS Educational Systems, Inc, Charter Schools USA, and Leona have been among the fastest growing charter operators in the state. All three have strong support from authorizers despite being ranked below average by Stanford University’s CREDO report on charter quality. If kids came first, these operators wouldn’t be allowed to expand.
Thankfully, other states learned from our mistakes. Massachusetts and Boston, recently named the top charter ecosystem by the pro-charter Fordham Institute, has one authorizer. New Orleans, where every child attends a charter school, allows only the local district and the state government to authorize charters. Washington D.C. has a single authorizer. These are charter-friendly places where school choice is flourishing, but have put quality first.
As the National Association of Charter School Authorizers writes, “large numbers of authorizers can result in significant variations in standards and practices, leading to “forum shopping” among charter applicants and schools facing closure.” Predictably, Michigan’s authorizers have long left behind their regulatory function, creating an environment that incentivizes the worst behaviors by adults at the expense of kids. It’s past time for Michigan to create a more accountable and capable authorizing environment.
The charter sector isn’t all to blame for this mess, and cleaning up governance issues alone will not ensure a high quality school for every child. The Free Press and Detroit News have consistently pointed out missteps by the Educational Achievement Authority and traditional districts, especially Detroit Public Schools. As districts financially stumble through the school choice environment, they should embrace charter schools. We should have incentives (or even mandates) that districts share vacant facilities with high performing charters, coordinate enrollment and transportation on behalf of families. And we need to invest far more into teacher development and support, school leaders, classroom innovations, and the youth development and wellness programs that surround schools. But all of that good work churns away in a broken and divisive system.
The good news is that all of this can be improved by the Legislature and Governor. Since the inception of charters in Michigan 20 years ago, this debate has been driven on both sides by money and ideology. The fact is that school choice is alive and well, and charters are a well established reform and fully part of the education system. But it must be better than it is today. We urge the Legislature and Governor to act now before the charter sector’s promise to drive quality and innovation across the education system is lost forever. Our kids can’t wait any longer.
Armen Hratchian is Vice President for K12 Systems at Excellent Schools Detroit. Find him on Twitter @ArmenHratchian.