Guest column: Charter school bill should add protections for quality

By Amber Arellano/Education Trust-Midwest

The Oakland Academy in Portage has fulfilled much of the bold promise of the Michigan charter school movement. The elementary school, run by the nonprofit Foundation for Behavioral Resources, routinely exceeds state averages in math and reading. 

But in the northeast corner of Michigan, a more troubling portrait of charter quality emerges. Students at Alpena’s Bingham Arts Academy are mostly poor and white. The school ranks in the bottom 13 percent in student performance – well below even other low-income schools.

Bingham is run by Mosaica Schools, an out-of-state charter operator approved to run more charters this fall despite a troubling record in Michigan. Five of its six schools were ranked in the bottom 33 percent of public schools last year. Two Mosaica schools were closed amid concerns about their “academic and financial viability,” state records show.

Mosaica is among several operators running new charters this year even though their existing schools struggle. This is hardly surprising, given that Michigan is permitting more charters to open, but does not impose quality standards on operators to expand.

Charter status is no guarantee

The Michigan charter movement was founded in the 1990s on the premise that charters would provide a quality option to traditional public schools. Its leaders heralded charters as laboratories where talented educators would show traditional schools how to innovate, spurring academic gains in schools that had failed low-income children for generations. 

But the state’s reluctance to demand quality has led to charter schools of uneven performance.   

The Education Trust-Midwest examined the quality of charter operators behind the schools that opened this fall, using the state’s Top-to-Bottom list of school rankings, which considers factors such as student growth. For each operator, we reviewed whether at least half of their existing schools ranked at or above the 33rd percentile of public schools – this being roughly the average for low-income students. 

Why set such a modest bar? In part because we realize that many charters admirably choose to serve low-income children and, sadly, poverty continues to be a predictor of student success in America. To not factor in poverty would be unfair. 

Our research shows:

* Six operators running new charters this fall have a record of low performing schools (below 33rd percentile): Mosaica; Leona Group LLC; Edtec Central LLC; Education Management and Networks; Solid Rock Management Company; and Midwest Management Group.

* Overall, 25 of 47 charter operators working in Michigan failed to meet our quality test. That is, half or more of their existing schools perform below the state average for low-income students.  

* Some charters, like Oakland Academy, earned solid results. Likewise, the Detroit Merit Charter Academy, run by National Heritage Academies, routinely exceeds state scores for poor and minority students. 

* But many operators run schools with chronic problems. For instance, Leona is running more charters this fall despite its oversight of the Academy for Business and Technology High School in Melvindale, where no 11th-graders were proficient in math last year.

We support any high-performing school – traditional or charter. We applaud charters that bring innovation and big ideas to education. What Michigan parents need, however, are not just choices, but quality choices. Operators with poor records should not expand until their current schools improve. Leading states have used quality measures for years.   

We also call on sponsors of “parent-trigger” legislation to demand quality. Parents who trigger the closing of a failing school deserve assurance that the school they trigger to meets minimum quality measures. That’s just common sense.

Our students deserve the same quality assurances that children in Ohio and other states receive. Our state deserves graduates who can thrive in a global economy.

Michigan deserves quality.

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Chuck Fellows
Tue, 10/16/2012 - 10:00am
First question: What is Quality? Second Question: How do you measure it? Before demands for "quality" are made it may be good to understand what it is. Traditional educational communities, academics, the general public and especially the legislature have no clue what quality is or how to measure. Just look at what they recommend as a primary measure - a time bound standardized test, a pass/fail, win-lose competition that, when used in public schools or the private sector destroys quality and productivity.. Nowhere in this article are those ultimately responsible for the "quality" and "Financial" performance mentioned. Who is authorizing these allegedly failing charter schools (allegedly since the measure used to make that determination are not valid)? A look at these schools financials reveals only MDE audits, no other external audits. That is a concern. The target, Bingham Arts Academy, a Mosaica School, is using a curriculum model, Paragon, that focuses on a classical education, not the obsessive academic focus on Math, Science and ELA and the superficial scratching at history called social studies. According to the documentation actual performances demonstrating learning are required. Sorry, but standardized tests cannot measure that. Maybe that is why their performance to a math/science standard isn't the equivalent of schools slaving to perform to arbitrary targets established by those outside the state. In order to truly measure the performance of an entity it would be well to understand its' purpose and then determine through careful observation and other multiple measures - subjective and objective - whether or not their purpose is being achieved. If their purpose is not aligned with an arbitrary standard of performance criteria that is a whole different issue that has nothing to so with quality. Oh, one minor mathematical point. In any system of measurement there will be those above average and those below average - about half in each case. Stressing in an attempt to achieve a target of all above average is ridiculous and futile. Cannot happen. So why do we continue to do it? Was the education that shaped the thinking of critics defective? Class dismissed.
Tue, 10/16/2012 - 12:12pm
This commentary reinforces my beliefs about charter schools. Yes, there are a few quality charter schools but, for the most part, charters do not out perform public schools. There are not the clear channels of accountability that are demanded from the public schools. Any agency that receives tax dollars needs to account for how they are spent. I do not understand why charter operators are exempt from this requirement. In some studies it is estimated that charter operators skim $1000 from the state aid that they receive and use it to line their own pockets. They make up this cost by hiring inexperienced teachers, parking children in front of computers for inordinate amounts of time, and counseling out high needs students by telling parents that public schools have better programs to deal with their children. It is time Michigan hold charters to the same standards of financial transparency as any other school system. They also need be held to the same standards about serving children with behavioral and intellectual disabilities. (Perhaps they should have to return the state aid if they drop or expel a student from their system so that the public school that takes the student gets the funding.) Jan of MI Parent of 6 current and former public school students
Charles Richards
Tue, 10/16/2012 - 12:56pm
The real mystery here is why these poor performing charter operators were given contracts to open more schools. Was it a lack of bids by higher quality organizations? If so, why didn't these districts attract offers from better outfits? In a properly functioning market, the government shouldn't have to set minimum standards. It doesn't, except for safety and sanitation, do so for hardware stores or supermarkets. Customer satisfaction, or lack thereof, is sufficient to determine who survives and who doesn't. Why doesn't the same hold true for charter schools? Theoretically, if parents were well informed about an operators track record, they wouldn't select a poor operator, or send their kids to one. Is it the case that parents in low-income areas do not have good judgment? As I recall, the contract given to the operator in Muskegon Heights was very poorly structured. Rather than the operator keeping what was left after providing an acceptable product, they took a fixed fee off the top.
Ron Lemke
Wed, 10/17/2012 - 8:32am
Amen Expect the same from charter schools that you do from the public schools. Public schools try to educate all children, not necessarily true for charter schools. Feds say you must educate special education students to 21 years of age. Mich. until 26. We must revisit this State requirement. Many teaching in the charter schools will tell you given a choice would rather be in the public school system, if for no other reason other than pay.