The promise of higher education and charter schools

Of the 1,050 charter school authorizers across the nation, 90 percent are local school districts. Ninety-three percent of the net gain in new authorizers over last five years has been local school districts. In 2014-15, there were 45 higher-education institution authorizers, just 4 percent of total authorizers. This may not be troubling for the effort to improve public education through chartering, except that authorizing by higher education institutions provides an unequaled opportunity to tackle one of our most complex and pressing problems, improving public education.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizer’s 2015 State of Charter Authorizing report highlights that many local school districts have not developed the oversight capacity known to provide the desired accountability and performance. It is also reasonable to expect that local school district authorizers are less incentivized to move beyond the regulatory-driven, compliance-based accountability systems that are the hallmarks of public education or the troubling hit-and-miss formation of new charter schools that is raising questions about the ability of charter schools to deliver improvement of public education at scale.

The idea of higher-education authorizers to advance chartering was based on the idea that innovative reform and accountability for the reform weren’t likely to originate from the local districts themselves. In 1998, the New York Legislature created the Charter Schools Institute within the State University of New York system to serve as an authorizer. Legislatures throughout the country soon followed.

Today, 17 states empower higher education institutions to serve as authorizers, and six of the empowered states (Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Louisiana and South Carolina) do not have active higher-education authorizers. These states also generally provide for the funding for authorizers to execute their responsibilities without burdening the institution’s general fund. These funds come through either collecting an “oversight fee” for each school chartered by the institution, through a state appropriation, or a combination of sources.

Many higher-education authorizers, like Grand Valley State University in Allendale, have their origins in training public school teachers. GVSU saw its decision to authorize as a natural outgrowth of its mission to contribute to the enrichment of society through excellent teaching, active scholarship and public service.

Other institutions have also seen it as an outgrowth of their mission of improving education within their region. For example, Washington University, in St. Louis, cited its decision to begin chartering schools as a natural extension of the university’s long-term strategy to focus on key issues affecting the St. Louis region. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has a similar regional function. Per its website, its mission is to work with “community organizations, parent groups, educators and other individuals who are committed to improving the quality of education for children in the City of Milwaukee to charter successful, innovative schools.”

Authorizing charter schools also provides colleges of education with a unique opportunity to build upon a tradition of engaging in K-12 education to study teaching and learning. Study can occur through researching the substantial amount of school and student-level data that an authorizer collects each year.

Higher education authorizers have historically allowed for this research to occur in an ad-hoc fashion. However, GVSU facilitates research within its portfolio of 71 charter schools and their 32,000 students through an initiative called EdLabs@GVSUCSO. The initiative, launched in 2015, facilitates and conducts research within the portfolio for internal and external use. Research projects have studied student commute patterns, teacher attrition and student achievement by teacher preparation type in addition to assisting with routine performance measurement of the portfolio.

As university lab schools have done in various forms throughout the years, higher-education authorizers use charter schools as training sites for their teacher preparation students. Over 30 percent of the 1,200 certified teachers within GVSU charter schools are GVSU alumni. Beginning in 2017, GVSU student teachers in GVSU authorized Detroit charters will receive free tuition, and current, full-time teachers in GVSU charters receive reduced tuition for GVSU graduate degree programming from seven degree programs within the GVSU College of Education.

The close relationship between the authorizer and its authorized schools also presents a rich student recruitment and development opportunity. As both a way to expose students to a university environment and to create a more seamless pathway for students to attend the university, GVSU connects with its charter school students through regular campus visits and summer camps that simulate the college experience. Faculty and staff from across departments come together each summer to give GVSU charter school students firsthand experience of college-level programming. For many of the charter students, the campus visit and summer camp is their first experience on a college campus, and, for a few, it’s their first trip away from their hometown.

Many GVSU charter school students are first-time college-going students. GVSU is recognized for its successful efforts to keep and graduate these students. North Lawndale College Preparatory High School, a Chicago charter school authorized by Chicago Public Schools, partners with GVSU because of its track record for successfully graduating minority students. Many GVSU charter school students attend GVSU on scholarships specifically provided for students from GVSU authorized charter schools.

Authorizing charter schools is a difficult task for trustees and university presidents. Charter performance naturally varies and closing low-performing schools, essential to authorizing, can be damaging to heavily guarded university brands. GVSU has shuttered 15 schools and is not without scars for its commitment to chartering only high performing schools that serve the students in greatest need of a choice in schools.

However, the resources and commitment the university brings to the task of authorizing mitigates many of the real political, financial and legal liabilities. Those robust resources, protection from local district politics, and commitment to maintaining a strong university brand provides a platform for dynamic university leaders committed to reshaping communities and answering many of our most complex problems in public education through the opportunity of charter school authorizing.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Sat, 09/17/2016 - 11:30am
Tied to the question of charter schools in Michigan is the distributed nature of authorization, and with that a subsequent lack of accountability. The ironic aspect is that as a public institution the charter school has virtually no accountability to the public itself. At best, in this case, it's a university with an appointed board, where "public" simply means the designation of tax dollars, but little in the feedback to those who actually put those same tax dollars. There is no question that GVSU has pioneered what effective charter schools might look like, but it also operates in a rather opaque mode. How do we (the public) assure that our charter schools are delivering on their promise? This is the question. And accountability is the tool which helps these schools deliver, particular to minority and English language learners, as this Brookings report so well highlights:
Sat, 09/17/2016 - 6:52pm
Your prose style is exactly what I expect from Charter school proponents: poorly organized, full of jargon and repetitive diction, lacking any persuasion. It's as if you've been given a 300 piece erector set and can identify some of the pieces in the set, but have no idea how to build anything.
Wed, 10/05/2016 - 2:46pm
Funny that this should pop up today. I just attended a charter school board meeting at Grand Traverse Academy. Perhaps you've heard of it? It's the one where the appointed (not elected) school board wrote off $1.6 million (tax-funded) dollars as unpaid debt, and the founder is under indictment for tax fraud. Lake Superior State University is GTA's authorizing agent. One of the things I learned at this meeting was that LSSU gets $281,571.00 per year for authorizing and "monitoring" GTA. LSSU is the authorizing agent for 22 of Michigan's charter schools. A conservative estimate means that LSSU pulls down $5 million or so, off the top--a benefit to the university that you didn't mention in your article. Again, these are taxpayer dollars, not private investors' capital. As for the so-called oversight, the LSSU rep's board report, delivered verbally, lasted less than two minutes, and dealt mostly with how he "felt" when he came into the building. Nothing about instructional expertise, policy study, research or data-gathering. There's more. I wrote a blog about it, for Education Week. You can read it here: piece reads as an advertisement for universities to get their share of tax monies for little to no substantive work or educational benefit.