STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Do Michigan's charter school rules need big changes, or just more tweaks?


What will it take to fix Michigan's charter school laws?   

The rules governing charter schools in Michigan were first put into place a little over two decades ago. Since then, there have been revisions – the biggest of which happened a few years ago when the state lifted the cap on the number of charter schools that can open in Michigan

But after the Detroit Free Press published a blistering investigation into the state's charter schools, the law may be headed for more revisions. 

And some are starting to make the case for a complete overhaul – not just of charters, but of Michigan's entire education system. 

"Let's start over," says Dan Varner, head of Excellent Schools Detroit, and a member of the state Board of Education. "I think it’s time for a complete reset of the way we deliver public education in Michigan."

I met with Varner a couple weeks ago while reporting on the historic changes in the Muskegon Heights school system, and what those changes tell us about the rest of our state's educational model. 

During that reporting, Lindsey Smith and I found that even the state's biggest charter school supporters aren't very fond of Michigan's current charter school laws

Varner told me he hears the same complaints we heard. And yet, nothing has changed. 

“It’s fascinating to me that we actually still have this system," Varner told me. "Because I’m not sure who’s defending it anymore.” 

One of the biggest complaints against charter schools in Michigan today is that they lack transparency. Most of the state's charter schools are currently operated by for-profit companies, which argue that they don't have to disclose their finances to the public boards that oversee the charter schools. 

This issue of transparency is a major new focus for the state's top education official, Mike Flanagan. He's been meeting with charter school authorizers in recent weeks to signal a crackdown is coming. 

In an op-ed published by the Lansing State Journal, Flanagan said transparency will be a major focus: 

There are many good charter schools in our state, which operate in the best interest of the students they serve and not in the best interest of the adults who run them. Measuring up to clear and rigorous principles of transparency, accountability, and integrity will help charter schools overcome issues that have shrouded them with suspicion and contempt among some in the education community and the public — sometimes deserved, sometimes not.

But many others say rule enforcement isn't the way to fix Michigan's charter schools. 

Jim Goenner, who heads the National Charter Schools Institute, says the state's charters are already too heavily regulated. 

"Michigan has more regulation than people actually understand," Goenner says. "Charter schools have more oversight and accountability than any school I’m aware of. And that’s the misnomer of the charter idea – that they were going to be free from all the rules and regs. The reality is they have more than ever."

Unlike in many other states, Michigan's charter schools are subject to the same reporting requirements, the same teacher certification requirements, the same curriculum requirements, and the same testing requirements as traditional public schools. The only major regulatory exceptions for Michigan have to do with teacher's unions, teacher tenure and paying into the state's teacher pension system. 

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools puts out a ranking every yearof state charter school laws. Overall, Michigan ranks better than average. But Michigan earns one of its lowest scores under a section for "Automatic Exemptions from Many State and District Laws and Regulations." 

Both Varner and Goenner agree that many of the regulations facing both charters and traditional public schools in Michigan aren't working. Both say some of the regulations need to go. 

"I would love to see the charter public school community and the traditional public school community band together," Goenner says. "Petition the Legislature and say, ‘We’ve got 300 requirements. Let’s get it down to 10 that actually matter, and enforce them.’”

And while Varner argues the state could require less, in terms of regulations, it also needs to offer more in the way of support. Varner does most of his work in Detroit, a city which he says now has more kids in charter schools than in the traditional home district. 

Varner gave me a list of problems parents face when trying to navigate Detroit's current system: There's no common enrollment system where parents can rank their top school choices; there's no common transportation system so that parents can actually get their kids to the school they choose; and there's no system in place to help parents move on if the school they've chosen closes. 

"I think the reform efforts to date, while well-intentioned and I think largely led by good people, have failed in this state," Varner tells me. "And it’s because they’ve been done in isolation and not done kind of as a package. We’ve not thought about the whole thing, and how to reset the whole thing in a way that makes the whole system work."

Right now, state superintendent Mike Flanagan is working once again in isolation, telling the state's charter school authorizers he'll use his powers under existing law to stop authorizers who aren't living up to new, tougher standards. 

And Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, says he may soon push for new legislation to tighten Michigan's "checks and balances" for its charter schools. 

For some of the state's education advocates, those changes may not be enough. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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