A path toward improving charter schools in Michigan

A guest editorial viewpoint in The Detroit Free Press on August 16, 2015

Naeyaert.Burkhardt.Quisenberry.Huddleston

One of the beacons of educational hope in Detroit can be found at Detroit Achievement Academy, a small school on the city’s northwest side. The school is only 2 years old, but it’s already experiencing amazing results in both math and reading. When the first-graders were assessed at the end of last year, school officials discovered they had experienced an average of nearly 11/2 years of growth in math.

A year-and-a-half of math growth in just one year? That’s remarkable. Then again, it shouldn’t be remarkable. It should be the norm. And the fact that it’s happening at one school in Detroit should give us hope that it can happen at every school in Detroit.

But currently, students in Detroit and across Michigan are falling behind the rest of the country. In our state, only about 1 in 4 fourth-graders is proficient in reading. In Detroit, the numbers are even worse, with 93% of eighth-graders in Detroit Public Schools reading below grade level, according to 2011 data.

With statistics like this, there should be universal agreement that something needs to be done now. Improving the education environment in Detroit must be a priority, but agreeing on how to go about fixing our schools has been more difficult. Many groups and individuals have come out with competing plans and it shows how much work there is ahead of us.

This need for improvement expands well beyond Detroit. That’s why in a series of recent town halls, members of our organizations discussed ways to increase standards to ensure access to high-quality school options for all kids in Michigan. Although we have different ideas about how to approach this issue, we feel encouraged by where we do agree. Our shared commitment to ensuring that every child in Michigan has access to a great education inspired us to keep working until we came to some shared beliefs on solutions.

Our shared solutions have two simple goals: Increase the number of high-quality schools and decrease the number of low-performing schools. We can do this, in part, by focusing on improving the laws that govern charter school accountability, while raising the bar to only allow high-quality charter authorizers in our state.

To do this, we propose creating a statewide A-F report card for all schools, an accountability system that includes both growth and proficiency. This system should include easy-to-understand information that parents can use to make education decisions; be transparent and easy for schools to understand the factors involved and the goals they are striving to achieve, and lastly, once this system is in place, we must use the data to ensure schools are educating our kids.

Our second solution is ensuring charter school authorizers are held to high-quality standards for authorizing. Authorizers failing to meet these standards or who consistently authorize poor-performing schools should have their authorizing authority suspended or revoked. We expect authorizers to evaluate and hold schools to high academic standards, so we should expect them to deliver equally high standards for filling this key role.

Third, we all agree legislation is needed to stop “authorizer shopping” — a practice where low-performing charter schools attempt to find a new authorizer to avoid accountability. Schools slated for closure must not be able to find an escape path, because a bad school is one of the biggest threats to our educational system.

Finally, transparency is essential to having an open and honest conversation about the quality of our schools. We suggest expanding the input of parents, neighborhoods and communities in the process of reviewing applications for charters. This information is required now, but more can be done to truly build partnerships with “communities” as a charter school is being developed. This kind of transparency will ensure people’s voices are heard, and it will give authorizers the chance to be influenced by people who will be affected most by their decisions: families.

Let’s work together and take the right steps to ensure that all of our schools live up to their original intent, which is to provide families with high-quality school options. It is time to start a conversation in the Capitol and make the necessary changes to the laws that our kids need. Let’s keep finding a way forward.

Gary Naeyaert is executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project. Jared Burkhart is executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers. Dan Quisenberry is president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. Lindsay Huddleston is state director of Students First-Michigan.

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