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Concerns with Education Trust-Midwest Report on Charter School Authorizer Accountability

February 2015

The Center for Education Reform (CER) is concerned with a new report out today by The Education Trust-Midwest titled Accountability for All: The Need for Real Charter School Authorizer Accountability in Michigan, taking issue with the methodology clearly used to fulfill preconceived notions. CER believes strongly in accountability and holding all schools to high standards. Performance-based accountability is essential in determining whether schools are doing right by students or not. The issue is not that the Report is calling for accountability, but that it makes sweeping statements and conclusions about accountability in Michigan’s charter school sector relying on misleading methodology.

CER will continue to analyze the Report. What follows are The Center’s initial criticisms we feel are important to address so lawmakers and the public can separate fact from fiction.

1) What the report claims: “Charter school authorizers, in particular, are arguably accountable to no one – not even our state’s governor – though almost one billion Michigan taxpayer dollars are spent on charter schools each year.”

Why this is inaccurate: Charter schools in Michigan are the only public schools held to any standards of accountability. Consider:

  • Michigan spends $13 billion on K-12 public education per year in state taxpayer money, with no accountability for results.
  • Not one traditional public school has been closed for academic reasons.
  • Twenty-two percent of Michigan charters ever opened have been closed, far out-pacing the national charter school closure rate of 15 percent.
  • Michigan allows only public state universities or community colleges to authorize charter schools, not private ones. The governor makes appointments to public university boards of trustees. We have linked to the Michigan statute here: 380.502(2)(b)-(c).
  • The State Superintendent could execute his authority to suspend an authorizer but has yet to do so. Authorizers have been working with the Department of Education to identify criteria by which the Superintendent can act. The law states:

MCL 380.502(5) If the superintendent of public instruction finds that an authorizing body is not engaging in appropriate continuing oversight of 1 or more public school academies operating under a contract issued by the authorizing body, the superintendent of public instruction may suspend the power of the authorizing body to issue new contracts to organize and operate public school academies. A contract issued by the authorizing body during the suspension is void. A contract issued by the authorizing body before the suspension is not affected by the suspension.

 

2) What the Report claims: “Fairness about the authorizers included – There are 40 total authorizers in the state of Michigan. Not all authorizers had enough available data to be included in our analysis. For example, a new authorizer may have opened a school just a year or two ago that has no track record in Michigan or may have too small an enrollment to be included in the state’s accountability data. In total, 16 authorizers are graded as part of this scorecard. These 16 authorizers are responsible for roughly 135,000 charter students, or about 96 percent of all charter students in the state.”

Why this is inaccurate: While Education Trust-Midwest admits its own shortcomings in the sample-size of authorizers included, its rubric for grading authorizers is significantly misleading.

  • Report’s methodology only grades 16 authorizers in total, or only 40 percent of authorizers in the state.
  • Highly graded authorizers in the Report only have one or two schools in their portfolio. For example, authorizers Wayne RESA, Hillsdale ISD, and Macomb ISD did not have any turnaround schools or charter takeovers yet were awarded 100% in this category of scoring. All of their charters were founded organically or were formerly private/Montessori schools.

 

3) What the Report claims: “Over 20 years ago the first charters opened in Michigan with the promise of offering a better alternative than what was currently offered by traditional school districts. However, many have failed to live to this promise…”

Why this is inaccurate: The charter school sector in Michigan is strong and meeting the demands of parent choice. State law allows for a diversity of providers, educational approaches and increased instructional time.

  • There are over 12,000 students on charter school wait lists.
  • It is worth repeating: Not one traditional public school has been closed for academic reasons, yet 22 percent of Michigan charters ever opened have been closed, far out-pacing the national charter school closure rate of 15 percent.
  • Michigan’s charter community takes accountability seriously and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers has responsibly proposed an evaluation and accreditation system that can be sanctioned by the state to ensure quality authorizing.

 

4) What the Report claims: “Clearly, in creating so many authorizers – with virtually no state oversight – Michigan leaders created a serious charter school quality problem.”

Why this is inaccurate: Michigan charter schools have to abide by the same rules and regulations as traditional public schools, but charter schools actually have more oversight and evaluation than traditional schools do because of the nature of their charter contracts. Data proves that this oversight has led to stronger academic performance among charters.

  • In the 2014 Michigan Department of Education’s “Beating the Odds” report, which considers the academic performance of all public school buildings in Michigan relative to schools with similar student populations, Michigan charter schools performed an average of four percentage points better than the average traditional public school.
  • Forty-two percent of Michigan charter schools outperform traditional public schools in math, and 35 percent outperform in reading.
  • Annually, the typical Michigan charter student will make gains in math and reading equivalent to two additional months of learning compared to their traditional school peers.
  • In Detroit during the course of a school year, charter students gained an additional three months of learning in math and reading when compared to their traditional school peers.
  • While the Report cited CREDO’s report, Charter School Performance in Michigan, the authors intentionally ignored one of CREDO’s key findings:

“About 84 percent of charters have achievement results below the 50th percentile of the state (the sum of the two bottom quadrants). More than half of Michigan charters have positive growth and achievement below the 50th percentile in the state, as seen in the bottom right pink quadrant. If those schools continue their trends of positive academic growth, their achievement would be expected to rise over time.”

 

5) What the Report claims: “The National Association of Charter School Authorizers warns against states having too many authorizers. Why? Because in states with too many authorizers, poor performing schools can shop around for an authorizer with weak approval standards.”

Why this is inaccurate: Actually, Michigan serves as a national model. Here’s why:

  • Michigan’s charter authorizers have closed 67 schools since the charter law’s inception.
  • Since 2010, 117 new charter schools have opened in Michigan while 26 were closed, a net annual gain of 23 schools.
  • In Detroit, 15 charter schools have opened in the last five years amid 10 closures, a net gain of one school opening per year.
  • Over the past decade, Central Michigan University has received 259 charter applications, 22 (or eight percent) actually became operational.
  • On average, Grand Valley State University has awarded charters to six percent of applicants annually over the last five years.
  • The Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers adopted a School Performance Policy in June 2014. In that policy, authorizers commit to closing schools performing at or below the 5th percentile rank on the MDE’s annual Top to Bottom list. (There is an additional provision that says “Member authorized schools ranking at or below the 5th percentile rank on the above referenced ranking system without trending upward on growth and proficiency measures will be closed.”)
  • Michigan’s charter school law has very strict transparency provisions that require charter schools to publicly report their charter contract; board members’ terms, policies, meeting minutes and agendas; budgets approved by the board; copies of bills paid to vendors or service providers; quarterly financials; personnel and salaries; copies of management contracts; etc. MCL 380.503(1)MCL 380.503(6).
  • Charter schools in Michigan are prohibited from hiring anyone to work in the school that has a potential conflict of interest or relationship with a board member of the school.
  • Traditional public schools in Michigan do not have to follow the above provision and operate under a much-lesser standard.
  • Michigan law states decisions surrounding charter contract renewals must include, “increases in academic achievement for all groups of pupils as measured by assessments and other objective criteria as the most important factor in the decision of whether or not to renew the contract.”

 

6) What the Report claims: Indeed, charter growth – and the money and power accumulated by such growth – appears to be prioritized above student learning in Michigan.”

Why this is inaccurate: By no means does the data prove to be “sharp growth” as the Report states. Consider:

  • There were 75,000 students in Michigan charters in the first 10 years. Only 65,000 more in the last 10 years.
  • In fact, charters grew more when there was a cap in place in Michigan than when there wasn’t.
  • Nationally, charter schools have grown at a steady, linear pace.

 

7) What the Report claims: “According to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, whose membership includes many of the largest charter authorizers nationwide and within our state, Michigan follows almost none of the organization’s principles for quality charter authorizing.”

Why this is inaccurate: In analyzing the strength of charter school policies, it’s vital to understand and take into consideration how provisions play out on the ground. Despite NACSA recognizing ‘policy alone does not make great schools,’ their report, On the Road to Better Accountability: An Analysis of State Charter School Policies, relies heavily on the organization’s own model.

  • NACSA’s suggested standards are heavily focused on inputs and paperwork. There is no evidence in any one state that adopting NACSA standards have any bearing on student success and ensuring a robust charter sector to meet educational needs.
  • For instance, Washington State earns a full 30 out of 30 points in NACSA’s latest analysis, yet there is only one charter school in existence in the entire state.
  • The District of Columbia, Michigan and New York (all of which have proven models of high-quality authorizing), faired poorly in NACSA’s report simply because these states have not ‘adopted’ or contracted with NACSA to implement its recommended standards in authorizing.
  • Yet, all three boast major gains in student achievement, have higher closure rates for charter schools than the national average, and have demonstrated proven approaches to ensuring the highest levels of accountability.
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