This piece is co-authored by Manon Steel, Roosevelt’s National Education Policy Coordinator and a member of Roosevelt @ MSU, and Connor Rockhill, a student at the University of Michigan and a member of Roosevelt @ U of M. If you’re interested in getting involved with Roosevelt @ U of M, check them out on Twitter or Facebook.

Starting at the end of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the United States was responding to a crisis of confidence in its education system. The advent of the report “A Nation at Risk” led to massive reforms and attempts at innovation. The solution proposed by reformist advocates was to induce market principles into the education sector, forcing schools to improve through competition. The idea was to raise the quality of American education through capitalism. One of the cornerstone policies of this new era of excellence in education was charter schools.

Charter schools started out as innovative models where new methods in education could be tested out and then passed on to public schools. They are publically funded academic institutions that are privately run and are exempt from most state regulations on public schools like adhering to state curricula, regulations on allocating funds, and the ability to hire/fire teachers at will. This framework, policymakers argued, would allow these schools to bypass the traditional ills of public schools such as teachers unions, poor and oppressive curricula, and predetermined budgets. The original vision for charter schools, developed by education advocate Albert Shanker, saw them as a tool to reaffirm the American Dream by promoting social mobility and unity for America’s low-income and minority students. In a perfect world, charter schools would develop progressive and successful models of education. Public schools would then adopt these models, allowing them to increase in quality.

When implemented, charter schools were coupled with other neoliberal, market-based policies which undermined their ability to have a positive effect on Michigan’s public schools. These policies were school of choice, academic accountability, and per student funding. School choice allowed students to go to any school that would take them; academic accountability graded school performance based on test scores; per student funding meant that Michigan would now give schools money based on the number of students they had. These policies would create a perfect storm that would drop Michigan from the middle of the nation in academic performance in the 1990s to 45th as of 2015.

Michigan public schools and charter schools compete against each other for funds, students, and higher test scores. High test scores would attract more students to a particular district, bringing with them more state funds. Thus, testing and finance became the carrot and stick for education accountability in Michigan. This competition severely disadvantages low-income, majority-minority schools which already suffer from low test scores and low funding. Charter schools only exacerbate this problem by building more schools and further dividing the already limited funds and students in these areas. Furthermore, this system heavily favors already advantaged school districts and only garners them more funds and students.

Michigan’s issues with charter schools stem in large part because of the state’s extreme lack of transparency and oversight over charter school authorizers. Authorizers are the institutions that open and oversee charter schools; they include school districts, community colleges, and public universities. Authorizers are allowed 3% of all funding given to their schools, creating financial incentive to open as many schools as possible. While public schools and public school teachers across the state are subject to higher performance standards than ever, Michigan’s charter school authorizers face almost no accountability from the state, despite taking in public funding and serving some of Michigan’s most vulnerable students. This means that the lowest performing authorizers in the state who chronically fail their students do not lose their ability to open or expand charter schools.

This lack of accountability in turn creates a perverse financial incentive to open as many charter schools as possible. While nationally 1 in 3 charter schools are run by private education management organizations (EMOs), in Michigan 80% of charter schools are operated by for-profit EMOs. There is evidence to suggest that schools run by EMOs tend to perform worse on standardized tests. Western Michigan University professor Dr. Gary Miron describes Michigan’s charter schools as “corporate” or “franchise” schools. It’s deeply disturbing to imagine the education of Michigan’s low-income and minority students placed in the hands of profit-focused corporations. It’s especially hard to imagine when considering the effects privatization of other public goods has had on these same vulnerable communities. In Michigan, for example, the privatization of water led to the Flint Water Crisis.

The charter school situation in Michigan is not entirely hopeless. Certain schools, authorizers, and states prove that when charter schools are deliberate and focused on equity and student outcomes, they can fulfill Shanker’s original vision. The Detroit Merit Charter Academy stands out as one example where, through high, self-imposed standards for success, its 90% low-income, 98% African American student body has outperformed the state in every discipline. However, charter schools across the United States and especially in Michigan, have proven they cannot be trusted to promote equity on a large scale without state action. Charter schools in Michigan act with little to no accountability or transparency, which is undeniably related to Michigan’s especially poor charter school outcomes. While many steps could be taken to improve public and charter school outcomes – empowering teachers, reforming Michigan’s formula, etc. – accountability is a pressing issue that could have immediate results for students. The Michigan state legislature should take immediate action to create rigorous standards to hold charter schools accountable for their student achievement outcomes. Until they do so, Michigan’s public and charter schools will continue to slide further into segregation and inequity.

There are several opportunities to learn more about the state of education, school quality, school choice, charter schools, and equity in Michigan. On March 13, join us at Michigan State University for a panel discussion and Q&A on improving Michigan’s education policy focusing on increasing equity between public/ charter schools, featuring several brilliant panelists cited and quoted in this blog. On March 29, join us at University of Michigan for a viewing of Backpack Full of Cash, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A on the relevance of the film in the context of Michigan.