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.

Secretary DeVos, and education advocates in Michigan, and around the country, believe that charter schools and school choice provide the best path for a quality education to students. I personally believe that charter schools, when effectively and transparently run, can provide specialized learning environments, diversify choices in teaching style, and serve as proof points for educational methodology. The National Bureau of Economic Research, in a 2011 study, identified five successes of the flexibility provided by charter schools: “frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time and high expectations.” But these successes are unique to the highest performing charter schools, and many charter schools across the country, and especially in Michigan, fail to utilize that flexibility to provide students with a quality education.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, in a 2013 study of charter schools in Michigan, found that 80 percent of charters perform below the state average for academic achievement in reading, and 84 percent perform below average in math. This lack of quality has a disproportionate impact, as 70% of Michigan charter school students are low-income and 60% are students of color. This translates into real outcomes: while Michigan students score 45th in the nation in reading and math on standardized tests, its African American 4th graders score last. Michigan is home to several exemplary charter schools, like Honey Creek Community School in Ann Arbor and Detroit Merit Charter Academy in Detroit, who fulfill their duty to students by providing a high quality education, but there are too many that simply fail their students. Western Michigan University professor, Dr. Gary Miron notes, “In every single state, we see inspiring charter schools, schools that make me want to teach again”, but “you shouldn’t base state educational policy, particularly one with such profound implications for the future of publicly funded education, on the outliers.” The vast majority of charter schools don’t meet state academic standards and provide substandard educations to Michigan’s children.

Michigan faces a unique lack of accountability for its charter school authorizers, which incentivizes rapid charter school expansion and low performance. It’s important to understand what accountability is before we can understand the root of Michigan’s problems and how to use accountability to transform both public and charter schools into the top performing in the nation. Accountability can be described as a process of measuring school performance based on measures of student performance, which is done almost exclusively through testing. Much of the modern debates and standards of accountability have their roots in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which created an expansive testing and accountability system, requiring states to assess their students and create standards of academic achievement. This bill placed a new emphasis on annual testing, annual progress reports, and teacher qualifications. States would be required to publicly rate schools to determine whether they made “adequate progress” toward performance goals. The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) was passed in response to the NCLB. It addressed many criticisms of the NCLB by shifting accountability provisions to the states and gave states more freedom to achieve equal opportunity and academic success while still facing some degree of accountability from the federal government in the approval of their education plans. Under these systems of school accountability, failing public school districts that do not improve student achievement risk losing control of their district autonomy and funding.

This expansive and effective accountability that public schools face does not impact charter schools and authorizers in Michigan. Some charter school advocates would argue that a lack of federal and state accountability is exactly the point of charter schools. To effectively utilize their unique flexibility and creatively achieve student success, advocates would say charter schools must operate beyond invasive government regulation. But the charter school system in Michigan has proven otherwise. Analyses of national educational tests have shown that Michigan’s schools are failing in respect to the rest of the nation. Michigan’s 3rd graders rank as the lowest performing students in the US and in the bottom 10 for other metrics, including early literacy and proficiency growth. Michigan’s public schools face consequences when they fail their students. Highland Park Public Schools has been under emergency management after state intervention in 2012 and now only educate pre-K through 8th grade students after its high school was closed in 2015. Unlike Highland Park Public Schools and all of Michigan’s other public schools, the state lacks the authority to intervene in Michigan’s charter schools which educate nearly 150,000 students.

The impact of a charter school system lacking accountability and transparency is not limited to its effect on the achievement of charter school students, but also has a far reaching impact on public schools around the state, particularly those facing financial and enrollment issues. A study from the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University found that one key factor in the financial distress of districts in Michigan is enrollment changes associated with school choice policies. The state of Michigan has a school finance system where the state sets per pupil funding which then follows students as they move across districts or charter schools. Because districts are very limited in their ability to raise other sources of revenue for school operations, they are heavily dependent on enrollment. As of 2015, 23% of Michigan students opted for school of choice, with 10% of all students choosing charters. According to Julie Mack of M Live, the number of students enrolled in charters was up 33% from 2009. In the context of a 2011 move to lift the cap on charter schools in Michigan, it’s easy to see how the rapid expansion of charter schools could lead to (and is leading to) dire consequences for academic achievement in public school districts across the state.

Evidence from around the country and state shows that charter schools can and do fulfill their mission to provide students, especially low income students and students of color, with a high quality education, but only when state governments and/or the charter school authorizers themselves take the deliberate and necessary steps to promote high standards of excellence and accountability. Naomi Norman, executive director of achievement initiatives at Washtenaw Intermediate School District, the authorizer of Honey Creek Community School, says, “WISD was able to set really high standards for any school that we would consider authorizing. We wouldn’t even consider authorizing a school unless it met a really high bar.” This commitment by a charter school authorizer to high standards of excellence for authorizing new charter schools has helped make Honey Creek Community School consistently one of the top performing schools in the state. In Massachusetts, strict charter school accountability and a highly centralized authorizing system has helped its charter schools outperform public schools academically, while also having some of the top performing public schools in the world.

Steps must be taken to increase accountability and oversight for charter school authorizers and thereby raise school quality for both charter and public schools in Michigan. I believe every child has the right to a quality education, but the status quo strips students from the Upper Peninsula to Detroit of their ability to achieve a quality education. Michigan should encourage its authorizers to create a detailed curriculum that demonstrates a commitment to high standards and engage in financial and operational transparency. Further, Michigan should  take action to ensure authorizers face accountability to school quality by setting higher standards to open and expand charter schools and empowering the state to hold authorizers accountable to school performance and student achievement.

There are several opportunities to learn more about the state of education, school quality, school choice, charter schools, and equity in Michigan. 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.