Michigan charter schools: Ensuring success or replicating failure?

A couple weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Education John King paid a visit to Detroit, during which time he offered some advice to Michigan education leaders in an interview with Chalkbeat: stop shuttering failing schools, because the schools we’re replacing them with are no better. He went on to question the effectiveness of charter schools in Michigan, which are generally called upon to replace failing district schools.

It should be noted that King is no opponent of charter schools. Prior to serving as New York’s education commissioner and U.S. Secretary of Education, he founded one of Boston’s most successful charters, Roxbury Prep, and was then a leader at Uncommon Schools, one of the highest performing charter networks on the east coast.

Instead, King is a proponent of good charters, and was calling for greater quality control in Michigan’s charter sector, citing Massachusetts as an example of a state with the proper checks in place.


The charter school laws in Massachusetts couldn’t be more different than Michigan’s. Massachusetts places a cap on the number of charter schools that can exist in a district, such that charter spending doesn’t exceed a certain percentage of overall district funding. This type of cap prevents the type of over-penetration of charter schools we’ve seen in cities like Detroit (Michigan has no cap), that has contributed to the financial decline of DPS and created a school system with far more school seats than children to fill them. Having a cap ensures that the rapid growth of charters won’t negatively impact district finances such that existing public schools (not to mention existing, quality charters), and all the students that remain in them, are shortchanged.

Massachusetts has allowances to their cap, particularly in the state’s lowest performing districts, but only proven providers are allowed to open the schools that push charter penetration over the legislative cap. A proven provider could be a current charter network with a track record of success looking to expand, or a separate school set up by someone who’s worked in a management or leadership role in a successful school.

This type of quality control means that while Detroit charters have mostly earned a lousy reputation, charters in urban areas of Massachusetts like Boston have a great reputation. University of Michigan economics professor Susan Dynarski recently wrote a post for Brookings advocating for raising the charter cap in struggling urban districts in Massachusetts. In the post, she summarizes a series of rigorous studies (several done by her) showing that Boston charters deliver better outcomes for students than comparable traditional public schools, as measured by test scores, AP course participation, and college attendance. These studies utilize the “natural experiments” presented by charter school lotteries in which some students receive the treatment (charter school attendance) and others the control (traditional public school attendance), allowing researchers to account for both observable and unobservable student characteristics.

Confident in these results, and the fact that new schools must come from a “proven provider,” Massachusetts voters can be reasonably sure that raising the cap won’t lead to a drop in quality.

Despite all that, Massachusetts is still in the midst of an acrimonious battle on whether or not to raise the cap. As they should! Because the expansion of charter schools surely has costs. The district will lose students, and it’s likely these students will, on average, come from more educationally motivated families. So both financially, and in the composition of their student body, district schools are sure to be made at least somewhat worse off by charter expansion. Voters need to decide if the benefits to more charters outweigh those costs.

But at least one can make a strong case that Boston charter schools have produced great outcomes for their students. And while there are certainly good charter schools in Detroit, no one could or should make the claim that Detroit students would be better off with more charter schools. We should listen to the Secretary King’s advice, and craft charter school laws that ensure each new school brought into our cities will produce success, rather than replicate failure.




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