Nontraditional K-12 Schools in Michigan

September 2010, Report 364


Traditional public schools are responsible for the wide dissemination of education and the growth of prosperity in the United States. However, the perceived failure of some traditional schools to adequately educate and graduate students, the desire for publicly funded school choice, and the perceived need for a broader array of educational approaches than had been found in most traditional school districts, led to development of publicly funded, but independently managed charter schools. This memorandum, which summarizes Report 364, Nontraditional K-12 Schools, is part of a series of reports on public education in Michigan published by Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are publicly funded, independently managed schools that compete for students based on programs. Charter schools were to be freed from the bureaucracy of traditional schools, to have greater autonomy, and to focus on educational outcomes. In Michigan, charter schools are called public school academies (PSAs). In September, 2009, there were 241 PSAs in Michigan, serving 103,000 students (six percent of the state’s K-12 population). There were 21 traditional school districts in which three or more PSAs were clustered (50 are located in Detroit).

In Michigan, as in the 39 other states that allow charter schools, state statutes seek to balance accountability (teacher certification, limits on the number of university authorized charters, reporting requirements) and independence (relatively large number of potential authorizers, specialized types of charters).

Supporters of charters value the publicly funded school choice that charters offer. Supporters recognize that charter schools offer students an alternative to failing traditional public schools, and contend that competition from charters will result in improvements in traditional schools. Some supporters believe that traditional urban districts, with industrial scale schools and restrictive union contracts, are incapable of effectively addressing the needs of large numbers of disadvantaged students, and that extended school days and years, individual mentoring and intensive supportive services, community partnerships, and small classes are necessary and can best be delivered by charter schools. Others prefer the specialized focus that can be incorporated in a charter school that draws students from a wider geographic area.

Opposition to charter schools has come from supporters of traditional public schools, who fear the loss of students and funding to charters, and who fear that the emphasis on charter schools shifts needed focus away from solving the problems of traditional schools. Opponents fear that charters will skim the best students, or the cheapest students to educate, leaving a larger concentration of the most challenging students in the traditional system. Opposition to non-unionized charters has also come from teachers unions. Some opponents object to the use of for-profit management companies, or the absence of publicly elected boards. Some opponents fear that oversight and accountability are lax.

Governance Structure

Unlike traditional school districts, PSAs do not have elected school boards. In Michigan, PSAs may be authorized by a number of organizations:

  • The governing body of a state public university may charter a PSA anywhere in the state. In Michigan, universities collectively have been limited to chartering no more than 150 public school academies (that cap was reached in 1998), but certain types of PSAs do not count toward the 150 maximum.
  • The board of a community college may charter a PSA in that community college district. Three community colleges have chartered 43 public school academies.
  • The board of a federal tribally controlled community college may charter a PSA anywhere in the state: Bay Mills Community College has chartered 41.

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