Revisiting Michigan Charter School Authorizers: An In-Depth Look at Central Michigan University

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 5, 2016

Earlier this year, Michigan’s application for the Charter Schools Program State Educational Agencies (SEA) Grant was rejected. In a previous piece, the Governance & Finance Blog explored the low ratings Michigan received on their application, particularly in the area of Authorizer Accountability. To gain a better understanding of the work that Michigan charter school authorizers are doing, the Green & Write Blog spoke with Brad Wever, Director of Public Policy at The Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University (CMU). Central Michigan University is Michigan’s first and largest charter school authorizer. CMU currently authorizes 62 schools across the state, serving over 30,000 students.

CMU Has High Standards for Schools…

While charter school authorizers have been criticized for allowing poor performance, CMU holds their schools to high standards. As explained by Wever, “We have a responsibility as an authorizer, as required by law, to make sure that the

Photo Courtesy of The University

Photo Courtesy of The University

academic performance of that school is high. If they’re not doing what they need to, we need to look at why we’re authorizing it, what the outcomes are that we would like as an authorizer, and what do we need to do to change it.” To ensure high quality performance, CMU provides support to their schools in the form of education program and curriculum reviews, site and facility evaluation, staff reviews, and assessment support.

CMU is also intentional in deciding which schools to open. “We always say we don’t open schools to close schools,” explains Wever. According to Wever, CMU is very selective about approving contracts. They have received 281 applications in the last 10 years and only 8.5% of them were approved and made operational. In Detroit, CMU has been even stricter, only approving 3.7% of applications. Nationally, one-third of charter school applications are approved.

… And Isn’t Afraid to Close Those That Don’t Meet Expectations

Critics of charter schools argue that authorizers continue to renew contracts with failing schools. CMU intentionally avoids this common pitfall. In the past 10 years, the authorizer has shut down 16 of its schools that failed to meet academic expectations. Additionally, Wever states that an additional six schools have reduced the number of grade levels they serve (typically from K-12 to K-8) in order to address poor academic performance. CMU has also reconstituted struggling schools, meaning that while a school still exists in name and location, the staff, board, and management company are replaced.

Wever explains, “When you say enough is enough and you’re going to close, it is different for every authorizer. I think that our philosophy is, we’ve closed schools, we’re not afraid to close schools.” However, Wever reassures stakeholders that, “We also understand that in certain situations, especially in Detroit, there are cases where if you close a school that would have an impact beyond that school community into the larger community. Look at a five-mile radius around where that school is, where would those kids land? In most cases, it’s not a better choice.”

CMU’s Response to the Education Trust’s Report

The Education Trust-Midwest evaluated charter school authorizers in Michigan earlier this year. CMU was in the middle of the pack, receiving a “C” on an A-F grading scale. One measure that brought CMU’s rating down was in the area of “improving chronically failing schools,” where they received 60 out of 100 possible points. Wever points to what he sees as a methodological in issues in how the rating were determined. Washtenaw Community College, Washtenaw ISD, and other top-rated authorizers received 100 out of 100 points in this category, despite not having improved any failing schools. Wever argues that this report failed to recognize the different purposes of authorizers – CMU provides choices for students and parents across the state, whereas local school districts and intermediate school districts that authorize charter schools are limited to the geographic boundaries of their districts.

CMU’s Perspective on Why Michigan Didn’t Get the Grant

When asked for CMU’s thoughts on why Michigan’s SEA grant application was denied, Wever points to Michigan’s unique authorizing structure. The grant requirements gave preference to applications that included plans for government agencies to directly oversee authorizers (including monitoring, evaluating, assisting, and holding authorizers accountable). However, in Michigan, this oversight occurs differently. Central Michigan and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers are pushing for all charter school authorizers to become accredited through AdvancED, but this is not yet required by law.

What Makes CMU Unique?

When asked what makes CMU stand out from other authorizers in Michigan, Wever cited the capacity of their operations. As an authorizer with 62 schools, CMU is able to provide content area experts, support in academics, finance, operations, and facilities. Wever explains, “There’s a science to this but there’s also an art. Not everything is black and white and sometimes you’ve got to have faith in a school, that they can turn things around and do something different. But you also have to have the guts to pull the plug and say this is not what’s best for kids, you’re done…when we close a school, there’s no question why it closed.”

CMU’s Contribution to Michigan’s Charter School System

While charter schools and their authorizers often come under attack in Michigan, CMU continues to provide families with choices in education. Michigan’s unique approach to authorizer oversight may have hindered the state’s ability to qualify for federal grant dollars, but authorizers such as CMU hold their schools to high expectations, as evidenced by their stringent approval policies and track record of closing low-performing schools. CMU’s mission statement – “to transform public education through accountability, innovation, and access to quality education for all students” – captures their dedication to Michigan’s charter school students.

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.