The number of charter schools has grown rapidly since the U.S. Department of Education required in 2009 that, to qualify to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states would need to remove any caps on the number of new charter schools that can be opened each year. While until recently the debate about the expansion and performance of charter schools has been relatively ideological, now even supporters of competition and school choice have begun raising serious questions about the lack of oversight of charter schools that suck billions of dollars out of public education budgets across the states and too often fail academically or financially.
In the fall of 2014, two pro-charter advocates began to raise serious questions about our new charter landscape. Margaret Raymond of Stanford’s Hoover Institution announced that marketplace school choice through charter schools is not working in Ohio. And Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the inventor of “portfolio school reform,” wrote a scathing condemnation in Education Next of the situation in Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not Detroit Public Schools, which views charters as a threat to its survival. It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school. ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”
Now the Education Trust-Midwest has condemned lack of regulation of the charter sector in Michigan. Education Trust-Midwest declares itself pro-accountability, pro-test-and-punish, and “agnostic about school governance.” But how to get some kind of oversight of charters in Michigan is a question Education Trust-Midwest cannot answer, though the organization makes an excellent case for increased regulation: “Charter school authorizers, in particular, are arguably accountable to no one—not even our state’s governor—though almost one billion Michigan taxpayer dollars are spent on charter schools each year. Charter authorizers are getting a free pass, despite being responsible for nearly 380 charter schools (and counting) and being the only entities in the state with the power to approve new charters and expand existing charter operators. While the state superintendent has recently threatened to use his limited authority to suspend authorizers, he cannot revoke an authorizer’s authority entirely for chronic low performance.”
The report describes the charter school sector in Michigan today: “Since the cap on charter schools was lifted in 2011, authorizers oversaw the largest single-year charter growth in state history. In 2013, roughly 40 schools opened their doors. In 2014, just under 39 new charters have opened, with many more expected in 2015. Many of these new schools are run by operators with terrible track records of performance, such as Leona and Education Management Networks….” “Without the cap, which once exerted at least some pressure on authorizers to be selective about new charter schools, today there is little incentive for authorizers to put students’ academic interests before that of some operators. Indeed, the incentives run in the opposite direction: authorizers receive 3 percent of the public funding for each school they authorize, regardless of performance. That amounted to about $30 million that went to Michigan’s charter authorizers last year.”
According to the new report, 40 different entities authorize charter schools in Michigan. They include public higher education institutions, traditional pubic school districts, and intermediate districts. In a sidebar of the report, Sunil Joy explains how current law speaks to the issue of oversight of charter schools: “According to the Michigan Revised School Code, the state superintendent has the ability to ‘suspend the power of the authorizing body’ for not engaging in ‘appropriate continuing oversight.’ The law goes on to say that any new contracts issued during a suspension period are void. This process is vague and contested; some universities contend they are constitutionally autonomous. Constitutional autonomy means that the Michigan constitution gives public university boards full authority to supervise their institutions to control and direct how they spend money… In August of 2014, the Michigan Department of Education put 11 authorizers on an ‘at-risk of suspension’ list for not engaging in proper transparency…. What is clear is that no one, including the state superintendent, can revoke an authorizer’s power.”
The Education Trust-Midwest suggests several needed reforms. Authorizers whose schools don’t perform should be sanctioned. Authorizers should not be permitted to approve new contracts with companies that already have poorly performing charters. Authorizers should be required to hold public meetings and accept community input as new schools are considered. The Education Trust-Midwest does not, however, provide suggestions for building the political will in Michigan’s General Assembly for the passage of such regulations. In a climate where many people are benefiting financially from the current scheme that lacks regulation, presumably charter authorizers and charter operators are making their influence felt by legislators.
Although nobody seems to know how to put the lid back on the Pandora’s Box of sins and evils that have come with unregulated school choice, more and more proponents of corporate reform have begun declaring that competition alone is not, as many have suggested in the past, an effective way to address achievement gaps and inequality. The Education Trust-Midwest has now gone on-record with Robin Lake, the proponent of “portfolio school reform” and with Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution. The Education Trust-Midwest declares: “Clearly school choice alone will not close Michigan’s unforgivable achievement gaps. Twenty years of data prove it. Simply opening the door for the rapid expansion of new charter schools isn’t enough to ensure our state actually provides better public schools for students.”