Is anyone overseeing the overseers of Michigan’s charter schools? The Citizens Research Council finds authorizers face too little, which impedes accountability.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
What we found:
- All schools are judged on performance, but charter schools replace the democratic accountability historically used with traditional school districts with market accountability. The idea is that successful schools will thrive and drive innovation in education and unsuccessful schools will close; however, strong oversight is needed to ensure the productive use of public resources and the well-being of children.
- Responsibility for charter school oversight in Michigan largely has been delegated to the entities that authorize the schools, 87 percent of which are universities and community colleges. Neither the state superintendent nor other state officials have significant oversight powers over authorizers and the important responsibilities entrusted to them, creating a disconnect with the public and reducing accountability.
- Strengthening oversight of the authorizers could include adopting administrative rules for the state superintendent to better provide oversight, enacting statutes that define oversight expectations and responsibilities, and making charter school authorizing a right that must be earned and maintained.
Of the states that have authorized charter schools, few have embraced them as enthusiastically as Michigan. Michigan’s law allows every school district, community college and university authorization to grant charters. However, the oversight that comes with the ability to spend public tax dollars to provide a public service appears to be lacking, according to new research by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
The report, “Improving Oversight of Michigan Charter Schools and Their Authorizers,” was commissioned and funded by the Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School. The findings will be outlined by Research Council President Eric Lupher at 12:15 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Levin Center. The media are welcome to attend.
The report concludes that such oversight needs to be strengthened, to ensure that the public’s money, which supports these schools, is spent productively, and that students are well-served.
“Michigan was one of the first states to allow charter schools. The focus then and for many years to follow was to enable the charter school movement to take roots and become part of the education landscape,” said Eric Lupher, President of the Citizens Research Council. “Oversight was an overlooked aspect of those efforts. During the intervening years, other states have surpassed Michigan by creating oversight structures that improve transparency and operations of the schools.”
About 10 percent of Michigan’s schoolchildren, or roughly 150,000, attend 377 charter schools, mostly in urban areas like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Ypsilanti, Lansing and Saginaw, although schools are dotted all over the state. Of these, 87 percent are authorized by universities and community colleges. Charter authorizers can receive up to 3 percent share of per-pupil funding, and are expected to provide oversight to the schools they charter.
However, the oversight lessens significantly beyond that level. Neither the state superintendent of public education nor any other state-level agency has more than weak authority over the authorizers. The Research Council found this creates a disconnect with the public, and reduces accountability.
What the Council calls legal accountability, or compliance-based regulation, aka “checkbox” oversight, is present for all public schools, but its focus on inputs rather than outputs – “are policies in place,” rather than “are policies being enforced” – can only provide the façade of accountability while hindering true oversight.
The research will be released during an event at the Levin Center at Wayne Law, at Wayne State University. The Levin Center’s mission is dedicated in part to “(strengthening) the integrity, transparency, and accountability of public and private institutions by promoting and supporting bipartisan, fact-based oversight.”
“Accountability is fundamental to good government, and oversight is fundamental to accountability,” said former U.S. Senator Carl Levin, founder of the Levin Center at Wayne Law. “Both supporters and opponents of charter schools will agree that taxpayers need to know their money is being wisely spent. Based on today’s report by the Citizens Research Council, we can’t say whether or not that is true for charter schools because of the lack of oversight. The report identifies a number of ways Michigan could take meaningful steps to provide the needed accountability of charter schools through better reporting and clear standards for the schools’ authorizers. I hope the Michigan legislature will pay particular attention to these findings and recommendations in this report so the lessons learned can be quickly implemented.”
The Research Council offers a number of strategies to improve charter oversight, including creating clear statutory definition of oversight expectations, strengthening the state’s power over authorizers; stiffening administrative rules, and requiring accreditation for all authorizers. Many would require legislative intervention.
“We often look at the state’s funding of schools, the curriculum requirements, and other aspects of education as means of improving education outcomes,” continued Mr. Lupher. “But the system needs to be built on a solid foundation that begins with oversight of the schools and authorizers. Strong oversight can improve perceptions of charter schools and the performance of the schools.”