by Laurie Cummings, Economist

The third in a series of reports on school finance reform, this report includes information about what charter schools are, who can start one, who can attend, and their potential effect on education.

What are Charter Schools?

As part of school finance reform efforts, the Michigan Legislature signed charter school legislation (P.A. 362 of 1993) into law, making the state one of the first ten to do so. Charter schools, also called academy schools, are schools that have a special curriculum or approach (e.g., an emphasis on mathematics or hands-on learning) or that target a particular group of children (e.g., gifted or troubled students).

Charter schools are perceived as a way to provide more education choices for parents and students. Proponents point out that K–12 students have diverse educational needs and that uniform education does not address these needs. Charter schools promote innovation in education, proponents say, by tailoring education to different student needs and expanding the education menu.

We do not know exactly what charter schools in Michigan will look like, how many there will be, or their effect on education quality. The few charter schools already open in the nation are too new to serve as models. The state has defined some basic administrative guidelines; however, no guidelines for curriculum or education emphasis have been set.

Although charter schools have been likened to private schools, Michigan’s charter schools will be strictly public institutions. Funded by a per-pupil grant, like other public schools under the new school finance system, charter schools cannot charge tuition or be organized by a church or other religious organization. In addition, charter schools must follow most of the rules that standard public schools must follow, such as using the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) testing.

Charter schools, however, will be exempt from some laws that standard public schools must follow. For example, some noncertified teachers are allowed at charter schools. If the charter school is authorized by a university, a full-time university faculty member may teach there. Academy schools also may contract or employ their own personnel as needed and may decide their wages outside of the collective bargaining process.

Who Can Start a Charter School?

Considerable debate has focused on who should be able to start a charter school in Michigan. Current Michigan law states that authorization to start a charter school can be given by the following authorizing bodies, which also have oversight responsibilities: (1) a school district, (2) an intermediate school district, (3) a community college, or (4) a state public university. School districts and intermediate school districts may organize schools only within their district borders. Anyone may submit an application to one of these four authorizing bodies.

Although anyone may apply to start a charter school, the screening process will be rigorous. The application process is fairly involved, and applicants must meet certain criteria. A group must become a nonprofit organization to start a charter school, eliminating the possibility of businesses running schools for profit. The application must include a statement of the educational goals of the school, describe the staff, and give other details about the school and its operation. If the application is approved, an authorizing body will issue the school a “charter,” or contract, and oversee its operation; this body may revoke the charter for various reasons, including failure to meet the stated education goals.

It is unclear how receptive school districts will be to granting charters. Charter schools will compete with local schools for state funds, and school districts will have to allocate resources—time and money—to reviewing applications and fulfilling their oversight responsibilities.

Unlike universities and community colleges, however, school districts do not have the final say on charter schools in their district. Voters do. If an application has been refused, the applicants may petition the school district body to place the question on the ballot. Fifteen percent of voters in the school district must sign the petition, which would then go before all voters in the district within 60 days. If a majority of voters in the district approve the ballot question, a charter must be granted.

In his recent State of the State address, Governor Engler announced that he will create the Charter School Center to help parents, teachers, and other Michigan residents learn how to start a charter school. He also promised a statewide conference on charter schools in late February.

Who Can Attend a Charter School?

Only pupils who are Michigan residents may enroll in the state’s charter schools, and only students who live within the district boundaries of a school’s authorizing units can attend that school.

For example, if the Lansing School District authorizes a charter school, only students living within Lansing School District boundaries may attend. Schools authorized by state universities are open to all state residents.

In response to criticisms that charter schools could be used to exclude low-income or other students, lawmakers added provisions intended to ensure equal access. Charter schools are forbidden to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, intellectual or athletic ability, or past achievement or aptitude as measured by MEAP or other tests.

Charter schools can limit their students to certain age groups or grade levels, however. If there are more applicants than available classroom space, the schools must select among the applicants randomly—the exception is that siblings of currently enrolled students are given priority.

Michigan’s First Charter School

Just before P.A. 362 was passed, a Michigan community opened the state’s first charter school, the Wayne State University Public School. This pilot school was started to bring students’ performance up to their grade level and to work with the “whole” child. Since this school is in its infancy, it is too soon to evaluate its effect on academic performance. The public, however, seems to have given it a vote of confidence, with over 5,000 people applying for the 330 open spots.

Conclusion

Some critics of charter schools say that we should improve the quality of all schools and fear that charter schools could widen the educational gap. Other critics say that charter schools really aren’t so different from regular schools and that they will not make much of a difference in educational quality either way. Proponents say that not only do charter schools provide an alternative to traditional public schools, but they could provide incentives and role models for traditional schools to improve their own quality. Unfortunately, only time will tell if charter schools will make a difference for all students, for just a few students, or none at all.

Copyright © 1994

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