Over at NCLBlog, AFT Michigan president David Hecker weighs in ony my report on Michigan’s charter schools. I’m excited to see this, because there’s a real need for more civil and serious dialogue between the charter school community and teachers unions and other more established education groups that often oppose charters. As this report from PPI and the National Charter Schools Research Project points out, there’s a lot of misconceptions on both sides, and a lot of talking past each other. Only a commitment to honest dialogue can help address that.
Hecker thinks my report is mostly on the mark, but disagrees with my assertion that Michigan’s charter schools overall are outperforming the state’s urban districts in which they are located.
He makes a worthwhile point, so let’s clarify this a little: On average, Michigan’s charter school students perform better on the state’s MEAP assessments than do students who attend traditional district schools in the 18 Michigan school districts (mostly, but not all, urban) that have 3 or more charters within their boundaries. But, this average masks enormous variation within both sectors: there are some excellent schools, both charter and traditional district schools, in Michigan’s urban districts. But there are also a lot of mediocre and truly abysmal ones, in both sectors, which no child should have to attend. It’s been said ad nauseum, but I’ll repeat it again: charters are not a type of school, but a governance innovation. Asking whether that governance innovation generates schools that are, on average, better-performing than what was there before is a legitimate question (but not the only question) to ask in evaluating the impacts of this governance innovation as policy. But that question mainly matters to wonky folks like me. What really matters is reducing the number of crappy schools in both sectors–either by improving or closing them–and increasing the number of good ones. The fact that nearly 10 percent of the charters opened in Michigan to date have been closed suggests that, in the charter sector, closing crappy schools sometimes happens. Are there more schools–both charter and traditional district schools–that should be closed? Probably. Should we be doing more to replicate high-performing schools in both sectors? Hell, yes. Hecker and other union leaders could support this process by praising authorizers when they close down low-performing charters, rather than seizing on closures as evidence the charter model is flawed. Closures are a feature, not a bug.
Speaking of authorizers, Hecker is critical of the fact that Michigan’s university authorizers receive 3 percent of the per-pupil funding for schools they oversee. But if there’s one important lesson we’ve learned in the charter movement so far, it’s that quality authorizing is difficult, requires staff time and resources, and someone’s got to pay for it. Funding authorizer operations adequately is a critical state policy step to supporting charter school quality and accountability. Have some authorizers in Michigan and nationally taken advantage of authorizer funding streams to support unrelated operations while doing a crappy job (or basically no job) overseeing schools they charter? Yeah (and a lot of those authorizers have been school districts). But the solution to this is to strengthen the mechanisms through which authorizers are held accountable for the performance of the schools they charter, not to stop financially supporting authorizer operations. Overall, nationally, research shows that universities have done a better job of authorizing than many other authorizers. There’s a reason the UFT went to SUNY to get charters for their schools in New York, and not to the NYC schools.
Finally, Hecker’s final comment hits on an issue that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:
The main point that the report does not make is that the original intent of charters was for them to serve as an incubator of new ideas and approaches, with the successful strategies being incorporated into traditional public schools. The point was not to develop an entirely separate system of public education–one with very limited accountability and that siphons money away from traditional districts. Another important point is that I do not know of anything going on in a Michigan charter that has not been–or can not be done–by a traditional public school.
Yes, fostering innovation is one initial intent of charter schools that appears in many state laws, but it wasn’t the only goal. In Michigan, the rationale for chartering had a lot to do with wanting to expand parent choice. I also tend to beleive that having a diversity of educational models available to parents in different schools is a positive social good–whether or not those schools are “innovative”–because there’s tremendous diversity among children, and not every kid is going to thrive under the same educational model. As I note in the report, there is a lot of innovation going on in Michigan’s charter school sector–but much of it is management and organizational innovation (such as the role of EMOs in the state), which is much more difficult to translate to the public sector than curricular and pedagogical innovations.
And there are clearly some very innovative charters in Michigan. I encourage Hecker to visit Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, or Walden Green Montessori in Spring Lake, or the Chatfield School, in Lapeer. There’s no hypothetical reason district schools couldn’t do some of the things these excellent schools do. But the reality is that doing what these schools do in the district system can be risky.
The more I learn about chartering, the more I come to appreciate the legal protection a charter contract offers to visionary educators. It’s worth remembering that Michigan’s charter school movement has its roots in the “empowerment schools” initiative in Detroit in the late 1980s. A reform-minded school board initiated charter-like contracts with schools that gave them greater autonomy and control over their funding in return for accountability. But when an election swept out members of that school board, the agreement fell apart and the empowered schools lost the freedoms they had gained and went back to being normal schools. Autonomy and innovation that depend on the good will of elected school boards and the educational administrators they appoint are inherently precarious. In a place like the District of Columbia, where school boards come and go and there have been seven superintendents in the past 10 years, the legal protections of a charter school contract actually mean some of these schools have more stability than schools within the district system. Charters can offer opportunities for a lot of things teachers want–stability, autonomy, opportunities for innovation. That’s part of why the UFT opened its own charter school, and it’s why I remain hopeful in the potential for productive dialogue between charter and teachers union leaders.
UPDATE: Leo Casey joins the conversation. I couldn’t agree with him more that charter school advocates need to be more outspoken than anyone about supporting good authorizers and getting bad ones out of the business. That’s been a major ongoing theme of the series of state and urban charter school reports I helped edit first at PPI and now at Education Sector, and I’m proud to say that some of our work has contributed marginally to helping improve authorizing in some of these states.