A public school education is as enshrined in America as the Pilgrims, with the first public school founded in Boston in 1635. But there have always been private and parochial schools for those who have made that personal family choice, although by and large our zip codes have made the decision of which school our children would attend.
For the last quarter century, there has been another factor that has both intrigued and alienated the public school community – public school academies, or charter schools, paid for with public school dollars but available to select communities. In many areas of Michigan, including here in Oakland County, charter school populations are primarily comprised of disadvantaged youth, with test scores and achievement metrics failing to meet higher educational goals. To some, this indicates they are failing schools taking money out of the coffers of public education. To others, it just means there is more to do to provide better choices for an at-risk population.
"We've had school choice for years for people of means, for people who could move from an urban to a suburban school district, or for people who could pay for private school tuition – no one could begrudge them for paying for private school education while also paying to support local education through their taxes. Public school academies, or charter schools, provide choice for those who don't have the means to move or to pay private school tuition," Gary Naeyaert said, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), a non-profit advocacy organization supporting quality choices in public education.
To Loretta James of Pontiac, choice for the sake of choice no longer looks like a better option, after sending her granddaughter Harmony Brown to the Michigan School for the Arts in Pontiac since kindergarten, a charter school authorized by Oakland University. Harmony, now a fifth grader at the school, has grades "that are not where they should be. For it to be a charter, her grades are Cs and Ds," James said. "She could do a lot better, but there's not a lot of encouraging (from her teachers) for her to do better. There's no one (from the school) calling to have the students be better. The teacher isn't encouraging her to turn in work, or to help the kids all the time. Harmony could study more – but the school needs to set a better guideline.
"When I went to school, most teachers wouldn't put up with a kid saying, 'I don't feel like doing that today,' and then just sending a note home," James contended. Rather than feeling like there are more educational options, she said she feels trapped. She would like to switch and enroll Harmony into the Avondale School District, but hasn't been able to so far.
"My niece and nephew went to charter schools, and we thought they were doing well, too," James said. "Now they're at Avondale, and they're way behind. My nephew isn't reading well, and is getting tutoring after school. They (his charter school) were just passing him along, and not checking if he could read. My niece needed speech because she wasn't speaking well, and it turns out she needed her teeth fixed. Avondale wanted to hold her back a year.
"There's not a lot of choices. People think the charters are good – but they're not. And Pontiac Schools are worse," she said. A possibility, she said, is to move from Pontiac into the Avondale district to provide Harmony with a better educational option.
Michigan School for the Arts is one of over 380 in the state and one of 27 charter schools located and operating in Oakland County, where almost 11,000 students attend charter schools. According to Jared Burkhart, executive director of Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers (MCCSA), as of spring 2016, there were 144,539 students in Michigan in some kind of a charter school with varying themes or educational emphasis, ranging from ones focused on the arts; Montessori in format; or with an aviation focus, like the West Michigan Aviation Academy at Gerald Ford Airport in Grand Rapids.
Loretta James and her daughter chose Pontiac's Michigan School for the Arts for Harmony not only because it is close to their home, but because they were sold its arts emphasis. Yet James said Harmony is frustrated as a fifth grader, having to choose between instrumental music and dance. "They do have arts, but they're both electives, so she does dance," James said.
"Parents value choices, getting to choose where their children go," said Dan Quisenberry, president of Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA). Noting that parents have two significant choices, "Interdistrict choice, which about 150,000 parents and students choose, and charter schools."
Not all school districts permit interdistrict choice, including Birmingham Public Schools, Bloomfield Hills Schools and Rochester Consolidated Schools.
Asked if it would be satisfactory to just have interdistrict choice, without the option of public school charters, Quisenberry said it would not be. "Sometimes that's not a choice, if parents aren't able to travel, or have other limitations. In the old system, where students were assigned by zip code, choice was limited. Now, you can move inside a district, to a charter, to another charter. With charters, there is the ability for innovation. Charter schools are an opportunity – not all of them succeed, just like not all traditional schools succeed. But there are all of the same barometers and metrics (for educational standards)."
Charters, also called public school academies, are publicly funded, receiving the school foundation grant from the state of Michigan, also known as the per pupil funding for a student, which for the 2016-2017 school year is $7,391 per student, that follows a student to whichever public school they attend. They are not permitted to receive any additional millage funding a district may attach to the foundation grant.
All of this was established in 1994 with the adoption of Proposal A, which was a radical sea change in the state for how residents had their properties taxed, severing the tie between residential property tax and school funding. Prior to 1994, local school districts were primarily funded through property taxes. Faced with increasingly high taxes, there were multiple attempts to refinance school funding, with success finally in 1994 when Michigan voters approved a new system of funding schools, known as Proposal A. It led to three key changes: It eliminated the use of local property taxes as a source of school funding, and created a new state education tax; it raised the state sales tax from four cents to six cents, with the extra money going to the school aid fund, which is the state budget for schools; and it set up a requirement for a base amount – known as the foundation grant – for the state's lowest-funded districts to receive and materially closed the gap between those schools and higher-funded districts.
A fourth element of Proposal A was the creation of public school academies, independent of local school districts, schools that were publicly funded and publicly accountable, yet privately run. In Michigan, a charter school must have an authorizing institution which oversees their operations. There is no oversight upon the authorizing institution. Burkhart of the MCCSA explained that there can be four types of entities that can be authorizers: public universities; community colleges; intermediate school districts; and public school districts.
"Of the 14 public universities in Michigan, eight act as authorizers, and there are a few community colleges," he said. Included on the list is Oakland University, which is the authorizer for Michigan School for the Arts and Four Corners Montessori Academy in Madison Heights, as well as charter schools in Dearborn and Detroit, according to Brian Bierley, director of media relations at Oakland University. Oakland Community College is not an authorizer of any charter schools.
"Most authorizers have at least one or two schools. All of our schools have a minimum of seven to be in our organization. The largest is Grand Valley State University (in Allendale), which has more than 60 charters it authorizes, and Central Michigan University (in Mount Pleasant), which has a lot as well. Those two have a full-time staff member overseeing their charter schools," Burkhart said.
Oakland Schools, Oakland County's intermediate school district, stated that they have no involvement with charter schools. The Madison Heights School District is the only Oakland County school district that acts as an authorizer, for the Keys Grace Academy.
An authorizer approves the curriculum, can provide academic support, although it may not, and can help with the hiring of staff and administrators. "Each authorizer is a little different. Grand Valley provides a lot of support in reading. They provide reading support and development support to the staff, while other authorizers see their role as just oversight, and allow their schools to act autonomously, letting them develop their programs independently," Burkhart said. "From our perspective, that's great. If there's a school that's working well, that wants to be just by the numbers, and the authorizer will provide that kind of oversight. Other schools want more hands-on professional development, and some authorizers provide that."
According to the Michigan Department of Education, charter schools can include K-12 or any combination of those grades, they may not charge tuition, and must serve anyone who applies to attend up to their enrollment capacity. "That is, they may not screen out students based on race, religion, gender, or test scores." They can have a lottery if enrollment exceeds capacity. Charter schools must also have a charter school board of directors overseeing their administration. By law, the school board – which holds the school's charter – must be a non-profit entity. Yet in Michigan, Gary Naeyaert, executive director of GLEP, acknowledged, 48 percent – or 183 – of Michigan's charter schools are operated by full service management companies that are for-profit, which he said is permissible.
"It's no different than privatizing for any service, like Aramark for food services or someone for janitorial or transportation," Naeyaert said. "Eighty percent of charters have private contractors for some services. But then, 70 percent of traditional districts have privatized outside contractors, as well."
What Naeyaert said is an urban myth is the image that there are "tons of national companies coming into Michigan to run these charters and take over our kids. It's just not true." He said while there are over 80 management companies running about 300 charters in the state, over 90 percent are small Michigan-based management companies. "No out-of-state firm works with more than four schools.
"Only a handful – less than 10 in the whole state – have more than five charters they operate and manage," he said.
Despite information to the contrary, all charter school teachers must be certified as all other public school teachers are, although there are times that exceptions are made. Charter school students are assessed annually by the MEAP and other applicable state and national assessment exams, and charter schools are required to administer other state mandated assessments such as the Michigan Merit Exam (MME) and the English Language Proficiency Assessment (ELPA), and are mandated to adopt the model curriculum of the state, which currently is Common Core.
While there are charters that appear to be religiously-affiliated, such as Oakland County's Crescent Academy in Oak Park, which has a Muslim environment, or Keys Grace Academy in Madison Heights, whose mission is "preserving the Chaldean/Assyrian/Syrian heritage through culture, language and history," charter schools in Michigan, and the rest of the United States, are prohibited from being religiously affiliated. The Michigan Department of Education stated, "A charter school must maintain the separation between church and state."
"The religious/fundamentalist agenda has been banned by law," said Burkhart. "It's been disallowed to incorporate religious education into public schools, despite rumors to the contrary. The authorizers are doing checks to make sure that's not happening."
Quisenberry concurred. "It's just not true. We have authorizers checking for things like that."
He continued, "There's a difference between culture and religion. What they're (Keys Academy, Crescent Academy) talking about is honoring their heritage. That's allowable and legal. But they can't teach their religion. Some of these schools are accommodating and appealing to a specific culture. They can appeal and teach everything but the religion. In Dearborn, there are many Arab American charter schools, for refugee parents. It's very difficult to assimilate. In Dearborn, it is a huge cultural issue, and a need there. They're monitored, so if they do teach their religion, there are consequences."
Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York, a progressive, non-partisan think tank that seeks to foster opportunity and reduce inequality, and the co-author, with Richard Kahlenberg, of A Smarter Charter, said, "There's a long history in this country of public education, and it would be a step in the opposite direction if we were sending public funds to sectarian schools. There are a small number of religious or ethnic schools nationwide that do qualify as that. Charter school law across the country prohibits it by law – but there are gray areas. Time will tell (if religion) is a real threat to public education. It's a particular threat with private school vouchers. There are a great proportion of private schools that are religiously affiliated."
While unsuccessful in her attempts so far in Michigan, President Trump's Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos of Grand Rapids has sought the acceptance and approval for the use of private school vouchers in Michigan, which would cross the line between the separation of church and state. DeVos, a wealthy philanthropist, GOP donor and former chair of the state Republican Party, and education activist, has been a long-time charter school and voucher advocate who also has strong ties to the Reformed Christian community. Until nominated for her new post, she chaired the American Federation for Children, an organization devoted to expanding school of choice options across the country, including school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs, and virtual and charter schools.
In Michigan, DeVos has championed the expansion of school choice through charter schools, financially supporting legislation and rewarding Michigan legislators and other lawmakers around the country. But Monica Disare wrote in December 2016 in The Atlantic that "DeVos' brand of school choice, which so far has focused on fighting for private-school vouchers and less charter oversight," worrying many charter school leaders. According to the New York Times, "It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos," and a piece in The Washington Post stated that "her positions on school vouchers appear to be motivated by her Christian faith."
One of the efforts of Betsy and husband Dick DeVos, of the Amway fortune, has been to fund the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP). Naeyaert, executive director of GLEP, said, "We're funded by a variety of people, including Betsy DeVos and other members of the DeVos family."
Of DeVos, Naeyaert said, "She is a disrupter, and she's an advocate for at-risk kids. She is motivated for kids whose whole lives are defined by their family's situation – are they from families who read to them? Her whole mantra is defined by that."
Of criticism that DeVos, a public school reformer who has never been trained as an educator or school administrator herself, he said, "Her goal is not to be a classroom educator. Her goal in school choice is to chart a new course, and to ensure they (disadvantaged students) have better opportunities for a different educational outcome. She is not an expert in pedagogy, in curriculum, especially not from the traditional educational establishment, and this is considered a plus to President Trump. Because you're not electing a top educator – it is the policy leader. She will direct policies. There are 5,000 people who work for the Department of Education. Of that, there are many thousands who are experts in curriculum."
As for a push or trend toward a more fundamentalist or religious agenda, Naeyaert said he couldn't comment, but added, "It isn't her desire to insert religion into mainstream education. It's not her goal to dismantle public education. She's advocating choice as an extension of public education, not a replacement for public education.
"If I were a rank and file superintendent or teacher, I would be very pleased to see Betsy DeVos (as Secretary of Education) because she isn't interested in micromanaging districts or classrooms. She plans to be the Secretary of Education for all students," Naeyaert continued.
"I support school choice. In fact, I'd like to see more choice for parents and students...I just want the choice to be quality choices that make sense," said state superintendent Brian Whiston. "We need to have a policy conversation around this idea of putting two schools next to each other, then telling them to compete. I believe Michigan does need some regulation surrounding that, and I was a vocal supporter of the Detroit Education Commission (DEC) that was discussed during the Detroit Schools reform legislation last spring."
But many public school administrators and teachers are not pleased – they're actually very concerned. Charter schools overall are non-unionized, and do provide much less oversight on the education, despite charter advocates assertions, than traditional public schools, and overall have not had better educational results.
"I believe charters can provide opportunities for innovation in school districts. They can service, not unlike a business incubator, an incubator for new and innovative ways for educating children. With that said, I also have concerns of existing outside of a school district. My greatest wish, if charter schools are to be maintained as an option, is they can also be instrumentalities of a school district," said Dr. Daniel Nerad, superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools.
"DeVos' record in Detroit – which reformers and teachers unions alike agree is abysmal – might provide progressive charter advocates with an opportunity to separate themselves from failing online charter schools, charter schools with zero tolerance policies, and for-profit charter schools," said Casey Quinlan, policy reporter at Think Progress.
Dr. Robert Glass, superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools, said, "To start, you have to understand that public schools, at their foundation, are non-profit entities. Charter schools have the ability to redirect their government funding to turn a profit for various stakeholders. That's a very dangerous proposition when it comes to the education of Michigan's youth. Typically, entities are not both publicly funded and privately run. It would be a challenge to find similar examples in other industries across the country because it's that uncommon – except for in the charter system, where about 80 percent of charters have enlisted a for-profit management company."
Halley Potter of The Century Foundation said that "Michigan is an outlier (in regards to charter schools). A great proportion, a great number of charter schools are operated by for-profit operators – about 80 percent, so it's very different from other states. Only about 12 percent of all charter schools nationwide are operated for-profit. Many charter advocates bring that up. As a matter of fact, New York and about five to eight other states have a legal ban on for-profit schools, with the biggest rationale that if there is any money left over in their budgets, it should be reinvested back into kids. Public funds devoted to kids should be used completely for kids. The profit motive is counterintuitive. Furthermore, the performance record of for-profit charter schools are significantly lower than the performance record of non-profit schools."
She noted that the context of Michigan, and the growth of Michigan's charter schools, "is counter to what they would want to see in an ideal model across the country. The Betsy DeVos appointment therefore poses big questions, and big challenges, to public education, which includes district schools and public charter schools (in other states). The uniting philosophy of public education is that we are using public money to service all students in open access schools with full public accountability. Betsy DeVos' record in education of supporting charter schools and private school vouchers as part of a vision of an education marketplace undermines that vision."
While the idea of free choice – to choose where to educate your child, in what type of school, with the appropriate educational model that is right for the students – sounds ideal, the reality in most cases unfortunately does not meet its goals.
"Research has found that a majority of charter schools are not performing well at all, and in many areas are underperforming local public schools that they are pulling those students from, although there are exceptions," said Sunil Joy, assistant director of policy and research for Education Trust Midwest, where he was the lead author and researcher on its charter reports, Accountability for All. "Charter schools came in with the promise of better schools than traditional schools 25 years ago. We found through our research, overwhelmingly, they have not fulfilled that promise. In our report, we make the case that the big reason charter schools are not is achieving success is because of a lack of accountability, primarily to their charter school authorizers."
Bloomfield Hills' Glass concurs. "There's a lack of transparency, accountability and equity. Charters are not required to follow the same laws and rules we are, which often leads to internal practices and decisions that are not in the best interest of the students they serve – not to mention there's no way to really understand how they're performing," Glass asserted, noting that while they are required to use certified teachers, there is a provision in the Michigan Department of Education's rules that states "charter schools may contract with outside companies for the provision of instructional services."
"Add to that a loose authorization process, and it's a complicated recipe for disaster," Glass said. "Note this statement from the MDE document, 'Service providers/management companies are accountable to the non-profit charter school boards that hire them,' and 'There are no current statutes that specify requirements for contracts between PSA boards and the management companies they hire.' No laws that govern performance targets or service provider financials."
Nerad agreed. "My concern with for-profit organizations is with Michigan's extensive requirements for public schools – those same requirements should exist for for-profit charters. Many requirements do not exist as for public schools. It's a fundamental concern. Every one of our financial transactions, because we're a public institution, is open to public scrutiny. That doesn't exist for the for-profit institutions. Anytime there is the use of of public monies, there should be the same standards. And when revenue is unstable in Michigan for public institutions, and money is being used for private charters, I do have a problem with that. We should not create wobble and further instability in the public school systems. If there is going to be this widespread use of charter schools, fund Michigan public districts first."
Rochester Community Schools were contacted for comment, but declined to be interviewed.
Joy noted that one of the challenges facing Michigan is that it has so many authorizers that are permitted to operate charter schools, and each has different standards, with different oversight. "You end up with some who do have good schools, whereas others who don't do as good a job," he said. "There are no real standards for who can be an authorizer. If you're eligible, you automatically can open a charter without any standards, but with a diversity of results."
Education Trust Midwest provides a charter school scorecard, with a letter grade, A to F, for each school, for each year they have operated. "We do it to provide impartiality, transparency, and to show which authorizers are doing a good job, and to shed light on those that aren't."
Of Oakland County's 27 charter schools, a majority received ratings of poor or failing grades, including Loretta James' granddaughter's school, Michigan School for the Arts, which has had a grade of F for several consecutive years.. Pontiac's Sarah J. Webber Media Arts Academy and Great Lakes Academy, Taylor International Academy and Bradford Academy, both in Southfield, and Faxon Language Immersion Academy in Farmington Hills, also had failing grades.
A couple of Oakland County charters are considered stellar, such as Holly Academy in Holly. Kingsbury Country Day School, in Oxford, which closed at the end of the 2012-2013 school year as a private school and reopened at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year as a charter school, has an A- overall grade.
Some schools were unrated, due to incomplete and unavailable data, including a lack of test scores, reporting on student growth, and other information, including Crescent Academy in Southfield
and Grand River Academy in Livonia.
Many charters hover somewhere in the middle – neither good, but not completely failing. Oakside Scholars Charter Academy and Waterford Montessori, both in Waterford, and Laurus Academy in Southfield, are examples of struggling charters, with C ratings, and declining test scores and reports. The question is: Are their students better off attending their school than their neighborhood public district school?
"Some charters in Pontiac, for example, have had Fs for multiple years – currently in Michigan, nothing happens to the charter operator," said Joy. He noted that some failing operators have even been permitted to open more schools, despite their F ratings. "The common argument by proponents is that at least we close them when they're bad. Our argument is isn't it the role of the authorizer to make sure they're good when they open?"
Legislation over charter schools has been spotty, at best, in recent years, with donations to lawmakers from proponents of charters prevailing over those from the Michigan Education Association and other teachers' unions. In 2011, a bill was passed to lift the cap on charter schools in the state. Previously, Michigan permitted 150 charter schools to operate in the state; it gradually went up to 300; then 500; in 2016, it moved to an unlimited amount. Today, there are 380 charter schools operating around the state of Michigan.
In the Detroit Public Schools restructuring legislation in June 2016 by the Michigan legislature, House Bill 5384 included an amendment on charter schools, where a charter school that has been operating at least four years and is among the lowest achieving five percent of all public schools in the state for the three preceding years, and has received an F for those years, the state will notify the charter school's authorizer, and will revoke the charter school's contract at the end of the school year. Prior to this legislation, there were several failed efforts by Democratic legislators in the previous few years to require better oversight and performance reviews of charters.
GLEP's Naeyaert acknowledged that performance at many charter schools statewide is not great. "The average for all students in the state is that one-third of all students in the state are at risk, but two-thirds of charter students are at risk," he said. "We don't mean it as an excuse, but there is an absolute correlation between socioeconomic status and academic performance. The majority of charters serve an at-risk population. Not only at-risk – but, as a general rule, predominately in urban areas with a higher percentage of at-risk students and districts that underperform, they outperform their demographics, their peers in the district.
"I would say charter schools are for poor students," said Burkhart of Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers. "If you look at the economically disadvantaged, 72 percent of the charters are economically disadvantaged, versus 46 percent statewide. Charters are going into areas where students have been primarily underserved, where graduation rates have been abysmal."
"A charter in Pontiac will appear to be much poorer performing than the Oakland County average," Naeyaert continued. "But if you compare the school to a similar demographic in Pontiac, the charter will generally outperform."
MAPSA's Quisenberry said there is a concern about many of the charters in Pontiac, with some schools having an intervention, and a few schools closing every year. "It's a privilege, not a right, to exist," he said. However, research shows only one Oakland County charter, Academy of Waterford, closed in June of 2016, and it is unknown what continued intervention authorizers provide, as Oakland University declined to comment for this article, and Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University did not respond to inquiries.
Halley Potter of The Century Foundation noted that based on test scores, "many charter schools are not seeing strong results, and they're not outperforming district schools."
Education Trust Midwest's Joy agreed, pointing out the biggest area of improvement needed is that Michigan's charters "need to follow the same regulations as traditional public schools. The remedy is creating a real accountability system that incentivizes and rewards authorizers through state laws and infrastructure.
"The end goal is not to get rid of charter schools, but to improve them to fulfill the original promise to provide better schools for children."