Charter Schools Set Standards, Break Benchmarks in Michigan

Published March 1, 2008

As Michigan charter school enrollment has climbed to more than 100,000 students, some traditional public schools are seeking to emulate their success.

The enrollment growth also calls into question the arbitrary cap on the number of charter schools the state can have, set by legislators several years ago.

Data released by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA) in December 2007 revealed the state’s 230 charter schools now enroll more than 100,000 students. According to estimates from the Center for Education Reform, a national charter school advocacy group, Michigan’s enrollment ranks fourth nationwide, behind California, Arizona, and Florida.

MAPSA acts as a facilitator in connecting member charter schools to resources and ideas that help ensure the highest quality education.

Michigan’s total public school population dropped from 1.68 million students in 2006-07 to 1.65 million in 2007-08. During that period, the number of students in Michigan’s public charter schools climbed from 99,124 to 100,146.

MAPSA President Dan Quisenberry said the figures reflect a positive trend. “This is very important to us as an indicator that the charter school option continues to be strongly supported by parents,” he said.

Competing for Students

Results from 2007 state tests and parental surveys show the state’s charter schools are performing at a superior level.

Some of the ingredients they have in common, Quisenberry said, are their small size and “relevant” focus on themes that are important to the students they serve. He pointed to the Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn and Black River Public School in Holland as nationally recognized charter school models.

Ryan Olson, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank in Midland, Michigan, says the established education sector has taken notice and is beginning to compete more openly for students.

“Many conventional school districts are getting billboards, putting ads on the radio, and ultimately listening to parent surveys and meetings to figure out why parents are taking kids to charter schools,” Olson said.

Learning Laboratories

Michigan’s cross-district open enrollment policy, which has been in place since 1999, also has encouraged competition for students, Olson said.

Quisenberry noted some traditional public schools have begun to replicate popular and successful charter characteristics, including longer school years and character education programs.

“In a way, you could say charter schools are serving as an opportunity for best practice development,” Quisenberry said.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers’ 16-day strike in September 2006 also stimulated interest in charter schools.

“Parents were flooding the phone banks of different schools, trying to get out [of the school district],” Olson said. “Legislators were getting requests for more charter schools.”

Detroit Public Schools enrollment fell nearly 14,000 between 2005 and 2006 and is estimated to have dropped another 7,000 since.

Authorizing Battles

Quisenberry says approximately 10,000 Michigan students are currently on waiting lists to get into a charter school. Local school districts, intermediate school districts, community colleges, and universities all can authorize charters.

State law caps the number of university-authorized charter schools at 150. Quisenberry notes universities are “the farthest from local politics, and [therefore] the most active authorizers.”

Michigan’s single most active authorizer, though, is not a university. Bay Mills Community College, the state’s only accredited community college operated by a Native American tribe, operates 35 charters. As a community college, it faces no cap on the number of charters it can operate, and its tribal status means it can operate statewide. BMCC has been the target of union-sponsored legal action. (See “Michigan Governor, Union Split on Charter Schools,” School Reform News, November 2005.)

In 2006 the state’s appeals court dismissed a lawsuit from the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s teachers union, that sought to deprive Bay Mills-chartered schools of funding. It is unclear whether the union plans to tone down its opposition.

MEA declined a request for comment.

“I don’t know if they’ve learned their lesson yet,” said Olson.

Addressing the Cap

Quisenberry supports raising the ceiling on university-authorized charter schools, while Olson proposes eliminating altogether what he called the “arbitrary cap.”

“Universities have demonstrated themselves to be high-quality authorizers and are doing a good job overseeing these schools,” said Olson.

Quisenberry believes the growth of charter schools, in number and student population, has had a positive effect on lawmakers in Lansing.

“Ten years ago, legislators didn’t know anybody who was in a charter school. Now they can confidently say, ‘I’ve got someone in my district,'” said Quisenberry. “It’s not just a concept any more. It’s a real school.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.