Michigan’s Accountability Blind Spot

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, February 16, 2016

A new report from the advocacy organization The Education Trust-Midwest (ETM) has raised alarm over the lack of governmental oversight of Michigan’s charter school authorizers. The report, entitled Accountability for All: The Broken Promise of Michigan’s Charter Sector, scrutinized the performance of the state’s largest charter authorizers and determined that many of them are failing to hold their schools accountable even in cases of atrocious performance.

Before diving into the results of the report, it’s important to understand the distinction between two terms: charter operators and charter authorizers. Charter operators are organizations which oversee day-to-day charter school activities, such as hiring teachers, setting curriculum, and purchasing materials. Today, there are approximately 90 charter operators in Michigan, about 80% of which are for-profit organizations. When a charter operator wishes to open a new school, it must first apply for permission from a charter authorizer. Charter authorizers are the gatekeepers of the system. They decide which new charter schools will open, where they will operate, and for how long. Authorizers have final say over charters’ academic goals, and they are responsible for evaluating progress towards the attainment of those goals. When charter operators are underperforming, charter authorizers are expected to intervene. In Michigan, any school district, intermediate school district, or institution of higher education can be a charter authorizer.

A Serious Authorizer Performance Problem

In the ETM report, the sixteen largest authorizers (which together represent 95% of charter students statewide) were given an A to F grade based on several criteria, including: their decisions regarding the opening of new schools; their oversight of existing schools; and the academic performance of their schools. Overall, ETM concluded that the state has a “serious authorizer performance problem.” Across the state, charters are producing “devastatingly low academic outcomes,” with over 80% of all charter students performing below state averages in reading and math. Moreover, four of the authorizers (Detroit Public Schools, Saginaw Valley State University, Eastern Michigan University, and Northern Michigan University) received a D or F grade. Charter performance in Michigan is so low that when the state applied for federal charter school grants in 2015, the U.S. Department of Education denied its application on the grounds that an “unreasonably high” number of charters in Michigan were performing in the bottom 5% of achievement.

Shirking Their Responsibility

No one in this building can hold a charter authorizer accountable. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

A bigger concern, though, is that when charter schools perform poorly, they are usually allowed to stay open year after year. No one is holding them accountable in the same way that traditional public schools are held accountable. While the state has the authority to intervene in failing traditional public schools, it cannot intervene in charter schools. Only authorizers can do that, but currently, they are shirking that responsibility. As the report states: “Charter school authorizers…face almost no accountability for their performance. Indeed, not even the governor has the authority to shut down chronically low-performing charter authorizers in Michigan, despite the fact that authorizers serve nearly 145,000 Michigan children—and their charter schools take in more than $1 billion taxpayer dollars annually.” If an authorizer is responsible for opening or protecting failing schools, the only thing the state can do is temporarily suspend the authorizer’s privileges, but this power has never been exercised.

Conclusion

The ETM report underscores the fact that in Michigan we live in a dual accountability system. While some schools are subject to rigorous accountability and victimized by emergency managers when they don’t perform well, others get a free pass to squander $1 billion in taxpayer money. The lack of accountability is especially troubling in light of the fact that 80% of charter operators are for-profit organizations which aim first and foremost to maximize profits (not academic achievement). As long as these operators continue to attract students and the taxpayer dollars that come with them, business will be good.

In light of the ETM report, the state legislature should immediately begin considering legislation to both enhance charter transparency and empower the state to revoke authorizer privileges in the worst cases of negligence. In the meantime, authorizers overseeing junk schools should be suspended.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.