More red flags on charter schools

Each time I write about charter schools I feel the need to start with we are a big supporter of charters. Have been since their inception in Michigan more than 15 years ago. Of the high schools we have made grants to in our Michigan Future Schools initiative five of the seven are charter schools. And we continue to believe that each of them can and will provide high quality education to their students.

That said there are all sorts of warning signs that in general charter schools are not living up to expectations. Not close! Most disturbing are the findings here in Michigan and across the country that charters on average have about the same student achievement as traditional public schools. And as we have written previously in Detroit – the kind of place where charters were supposed to be the key to substantial gains in student achievement –most charters are getting unacceptably low results.

Now comes a study from the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education done by David Arsen, a Michigan State University education professor and Yongmei Ni, an assistant professor of education at the University of Utah. As reported by the study’s bottom line conclusion: Michigan charter schools spend twice as much per pupil on administration and about 20 percent less on instruction than traditional public schools.

Among the findings highlighted in the Mlive article are: “Michigan charter schools spent on average $1,141 less on instruction than traditional public schools. Charters spent about 47 percent of their operating budgets on instruction, compared to 60 percent for traditional public schools. On average, charter schools spent $774 more per pupil per year on administration. Charter schools on average spent 23 percent of their budgets on administration, compared to less than 10 percent for Michigan districts overall.” Egads!

An important component of the case for charters was the notion that because they were not beholden to so-called greedy adults – teacher and other unions, politically connected contractors, corrupt school boards, etc. – charters could and would operate more efficiently freeing up more funds for teaching and learning. That the exact opposite is occurring is deeply disturbing.

Turns out we may have substituted one group of adults who put their interests ahead of kids for another group of adults who do the same. Instead of teachers and other district employees and contractors, now it is top administrators and owners of private sector management companies. The study found that “about 80 percent of Michigan charter schools are operated by for-profit firms, the highest percentage in the country.” If all we have done is move from one system that pays teachers, bus drivers, food services workers, etc. too much for too little student achievement to a different system that pays those who run and own charter operations too much for too little student achievement would be a real tragedy.

And just as the employees (largely through their unions) used their political clout for decades to stop needed reforms, it is virtually certain that the charter operators will do the same. Once again it is not progress if we substitute one group – largely supporting Democrats – for another group – largely supporting Republicans – who have way too much political influence to work against the interest of kids.

Are there exceptions to the pattern? Of course. (Just as there was and are exceptions to the pattern of inefficient and/or ineffective traditional public schools.) There are a group of nationally recognized non profit charter operators who are realizing the potential of charters and substantially improving student achievement and life outcomes. What is worrisome is that most of them have been heavily subsidized by philanthropy. Which probably is not sustainable and is certainly not scalable long term.

Rather than passing legislation to remove the cap on charter schools in Michigan and, even more worrisome, most limits on online school providers, policy makers should be focusing their attention on how we get better student achievement. After all this is what charters were supposed to accomplish. When an important study concludes “If one were searching for a contemporary reform to shift resources from classroom instruction to administration, it is hard to imagine one that could accomplish this as decisively as charter schools have done in Michigan.” it clearly is time for a complete reconsideration of how we structure a process so that charter schools first and foremost serves the interest of kids.

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