As We Stand: Solutions for Michigan Education Today

Editor’s Note: These three posts come to us from three students at the University of Michigan who have been working with our own Manon Steel on her charter school project. We’re presenting them on our blog, and hope you find them informative.

House Bill 5288

By James Stinnett

In November of last year, Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo introduced Bill 5288 to the Michigan Legislature. The goal of this bill is to improve the process for approving new charter schools by adding new criteria to the approval process, and to ensure that there is proper oversight for charter schools after they have been established.

Currently, charter school authorizers generally have free reign over how they want to establish new schools, with little regard for the performance of their past authorized charters in statewide math and reading standards, or whether a region needs a charter school, as we have seen Detroit become filled with too many charter schools. The Education Trust of the Midwest, which has its own report card for charter school authorizers, found that between 2011 and 2015, around 20% of new charter schools were founded by authorizers with grades of D or F. Authorizers with this grade are making good decisions about school openings, school operation, and improvement of poor performing schools around 50% of the time or less according to the Education Trust. Despite the poor oversight of those authorizers, they were still able to get away with opening these schools for their own profit at the expense of Michigan students and taxpayers. Bill 5288 will require consideration of numerous factors when deciding on whether to issue a contract for a proposed charter school, including the track record the applicant has had in opening past charter schools, the graduation rate of the local school district, and the educational goals that the charter school wants to pursue. That last part is crucial, as it not only ensures that new schools will be committed to strong academic standards, but it provides a method to hold these schools accountable if they are performing poorly. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that 80% of charter schools perform below the state average in reading, and that 84% perform below the state average in math. We should not allow these schools to take away funding and resources from public schools just to fail our students. With Bill 5288 making sure that charter schools are held to the goals they set, we can hope that charter students will get an improved education and help raise the statewide standard in reading and math.

This bill will provide some much needed oversight to the charter school authorization process, as well as accountability over operating charter schools. This chapter of the Roosevelt Institute supports it wholeheartedly, and hopes it will be passed in the upcoming legislative session.

House Bill 5289: A Wakeup Call for Charter Authorizers

By Devan O’Toole

House Bill 5289, introduced on November 30th of 2017 by Rep. Kristy Pagan, calls for greater restrictions on charter schools in Michigan by making it so charter school authorizers file a report on whether schools under their jurisdiction are complying with their contractual requirements by imposing authorization fees for schools that fall out of compliance. This will force the hand of authorizers, as it will no longer be in their best interest to allow schools to ignore the requirements of their authorizers, because allowing non-complying schools to operate will put authorizers at a financial loss.

Complying to the requirements of authorizers is vital for charter schools to provide equal opportunities to students in Michigan. Authorizers establish required curriculum in order to create an educational standard for charter schools, so that students . A check on what charter schools should teach is important because schools can easily fall under state standards if they are not regulated. Charter schools should have curriculum tailored so that it best services the communities they are in; charter schools can

provide a great advantage to diverse communities if their curriculum is built to best serve them academically. Especially in Detroit, students in charter schools suffer from a lack of accountability; half of the students in charters perform on standardized tests as well or worse than Detroit’s traditional public schools. By not complying with the standards of their authorizers, charter schools make their students less prepared to keep up with other students. House Bill 5289 is not only a bill to strengthen charter accountability, but it is aimed enforcing equal educational opportunities,

Another layer to the importance of charter school regulation, is charter schools’ disproportionate effects on low-income, black, and hispanic students in Michigan. The majority of Michigan’s charter schools are in Detroit. 80% of Michigan’s charter schools are owned by for-profit agencies, and in order to have enough students to receive funding, charter school operators compete for applicants. Since the student population in Detroit is composed of primarily black and hispanic students – charter schools in Detroit are composed of 85.9% black students and 8.6% hispanic students – charter schools that have a lower standard of education hurts these communities the most. Charter schools historically service less special needs students as well: charter schools only enroll 8-10% of special needs students whereas district schools enroll 13%. Refusing to enforce charter school requirements creates inequities in education for black, hispanic, and special needs students.

Charter schools authorizers include six different kind of groups: higher education institutions, independent chartering boards, local education agencies, non-educational government agencies, not-for-profit organizations, and state education agencies. Most authorizers in the state of Michigan are either higher education institutions and local education agencies. In 1993, Michigan Governor John Engler signed into law that charter schools could be authorized by a few select universities, community colleges, and public schools districts. However, these authorizations could go unchecked by the state’s board of education or even the governor themself, meaning that charter schools that have repeatedly not complied with standards could even be reauthorized. He also gave a financial incentive to authorizers to open an absurdly large quantity of schools, as authorizers received 3% of the fund that goes to charter schools. By providing a financial incentive for authorizers to close down failing schools, the benefit of opening up new schools is reduced. Therefore, authorizers will benefit more from assisting in the surveillance of school performance, rather than helping to maintain schools that are a cost for society.

Even though House Bill 5289 would be a huge step toward charter school regulation, it has not made it very far through Michigan’s state legislature quite yet. House Bill 5289 has only been introduced in the House, it has yet to move onto Michigan’s Senate. The next step towards the progress of this legislation is making policymakers more aware of the benefits of increased charter school regulation. The best way to do this is to write to your local representative about the importance of this bill. You can find your state representative on this website​. Just sending an email to your representative about House Bill 5289 could go a long way, as it will bring more attention to the issue of failing charter schools. So far, fifteen other representatives have co-sponsored Rep. Pagan’s bill. By gathering additional support for this bill, we can make steps towards greater charter school accountability.

Charter School Policy in Michigan Governor’s Race

By Solomon Medintz

With the Michigan gubernatorial race heating up, education should be one of the central issues of the campaign for a number of reasons. First, Michigan’s nationwide testing scores are falling precipitously, prompting public outcry over the state of its schools. In 2003, Michigan’s fourth-graders placed 28th in reading in the country, but in recent data from Education Trust Midwest, third-grade reading scores had the lowest increases among comparable states. Second, Michigan’s education system has drawn national attention due to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ influence within Donald Trump’s administration. The most salient education issue is the debate over the regulation of charter schools. The five leading candidates in the race, State Senator Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Public Health Commissioner Abdul El-Sayed on the Democratic side and Attorney General Bill Schuette, State Senator Patrick Colbeck, and Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley for the Republicans, offer drastically different views on the role of charter schools in Michigan’s education system. Whitmer and El-Sayed offer more comprehensive solutions to reforming Michigan’s charter schools; between the two Democrats, El-Sayed’s plan is more developed in specifics, whereas Whitmer’s background makes her more likely to tackle these issues.

Mr. Schuette, the favorite in the Republican primary, thinks giving parents and students greaterchoice​ is the solution to Michigan’s education issues. This was the same messaging that former governor John Engler used to push for charter schools; starting in the early 1990’s, Engler argued for transcending the government’s supposed bureaucratic monopoly over public education. This policy shift is considered to be the source of Michigan’s fall in academic achievement. Schuette wants to double down on the methods that caused the problem. However, in his policies, he does address one of the key issues of charter schools: that oftentimes students are traveling too far to get to their schools. But recognizing that this is an issue is a far cry from doing anything about it. What is even more discouraging is that in his political career, Schuette has taken nearly $150,000 from the DeVos family and other charter school advocates. If Schuette is elected, Michiganders should have little hope for charter school reform. Rather, we should anticipate that Michigan’s schools will continue sliding towards where the Michigan Education Trust believes they are headed by 2030—48th nationwide.

State Senator Colbeck and Lieutenant Governor Calley offer even more vague plans for charter school reform. Mr. Colbeck, like Mr. Schuette, doubles down on school choice and flexibility as his solution for Michigan’s educational woes. Needless to say, such strategies will not work. Mr. Calley does not address the issue of charter schools on his campaign’s website, but given his history as Lieutenant Governor to current governor Rick Snyder, it is safe to say that Mr. Calley is not the reformer Michigan needs.

A more interesting debate comes on the Democratic side, where both Senator Whitmer and Dr. El-Sayed have stated their desire to reform charter schools and hold them accountable to the individuals they serve instead of the distant for-profit authorizers that operate them.

The Whitmer campaign has said that to improve Michigan’s education system, the state government should oversee charter schools. While this is true and a good start, she does not go into detail about who will be overseeing the schools, how strict their standards will be, or what the repercussions will be for failing to meet statewide standards. We would like to see far greater detail on such a pressing issue from the Democratic front-runner.

The El-Sayed campaign has a much more comprehensive plan to reform charter schools. Dr. El-Sayed wants to take the profit motive out of education by transitioning for-profit charter operators to non-profit ones. He also wants to facilitate community participation in their local charter schools to increase charter school accountability to their constituents, although his specifics on how to accomplish this are vague. But perhaps the most impactful change he proposes is to create a statewide council which will evaluate attempts to open future charter schools.

While Senator Whitmer and Dr. El-Sayed come the closest, no candidate has made charter school reform the centerpiece of their candidacy or offered sufficient specific proposals that will actually precede effective reform. More generally, charter school reform is not getting enough attention in the campaign within either party. We hope that Michigan’s gubernatorial candidates will recognize that unlocking the keys to Michigan’s economy requires smart reforms over a system that has gone out of control. The key to that is to reign in charter schools.