By JUSTINE McGUIRE
Capital New Service
LANSING – Making public school academies — charters — more accountable is on the minds of some legislators.
A bill by Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, would prohibit new academies from having management agreements with for-profit organizations.
It also would disallow authorizing bodies, such as universities, from creating new academies unless students at all of their existing academies perform at least 20 percent better than students in the nearest traditional school district.
Weak laws have allowed a lot of charter schools to pop up and take students away from traditional schools, causing financial stress to public schools that lose state aid, Hopgood said.
The charters create an uneven playing field, he said.
In recent years, the Legislature has lifted limitations on the number of charters. There are now about 300 in the state authorized by a mix of universities, community colleges, and local and intermediate school districts.
Hopgood said charters attract students because of successful marketing. “You can get someone to stand in line for anything if you market it well.”
One problem is that about 80 percent of charters are operated by for-profit education management organizations, or EMOs, he said. The national average is closer to 20-25 percent.
And KC Holder, a Northern Michigan University professor of education, said another problem with EMOs is that they use public money but aren’t necessarily as accountable to a public entity, such as a publicly elected school board.
Northern Michigan authorizes seven charters.
Hopgood said the rationale for expanding the number of charters was that they would enhance the entire K-12 educational system for the better and that hasn’t happened.
But authorizers say the charters should have more time to prove themselves.
“I know from time to time there are people who don’t understand what we’re doing and claim that the academies aren’t being watched, but for the 20 that Ferris State University authorizes, we know what’s going on in those schools,” said Ronald Rizzo, interim director of the Ferris Charter Schools Office.
He said he’s happy overall with the performance of the academies his office oversees, although many have room for improvement.
If Hopgood’s legislation were to pass, Ferris and other authorizers would probably have a hard time getting all their charters to perform 20 percent better than local public school districts before opening new ones.
“Some academies are knocking the socks off the traditional schools, but some aren’t,” Rizzo said.
He said students at some charters perform better in certain subjects or grade levels, and the longer students have been in a non-traditional school, the better they do generally.
“If you do a comparison on who’s just now coming in, you’re evaluating someone else’s work,” he said.
In addition, students at one charter can come from many traditional districts. For example, a Ferris charter in Metro Detroit has students from 34 public school districts.
Rizzo said comparing an academy to the district where it’s geographically located isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Instead, Ferris is working on composite resident comparisons in which students at a charter are compared with students in their home districts.
Northern Michigan’s Holder said being a charter doesn’t automatically mean a school will be high performing. It depends on what niche it serves – some are intended for at-risk students while others target gifted students, for example.
Holder said they’re accountable to their authorizers, the parents who choose the schools, and to the state.
Moving students from traditional schools to charters does move financial resources — state aid — to charters, but having the alternatives should raise the quality of all schools as they vie for students. However, it’s difficult to tell if that has been the case so far, he said.
Rizzo said many public schools perform poorly, so what about oversight of them?
He said the Legislature should worry about education in general, “whether it’s traditional, charter, private or parochial. The concern should be for the kids – let’s get rid of the labels.”
Cosponsors of Hopgood’s bill are Sens. Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield, Virgil Smith, D-Detroit, and Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing.
The bill is pending in the Senate Education Committee.
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