Friday, December 9, 2011

Lifting the Cap on Charter Schools in Michigan Gets My Support

Perhaps next week the House will be voting on Senate Bill 618, the Charter School bill. It passed the Senate and was passed out of the House Education Committee in a somewhat revised form called “substitute H-4”.

“The bill as it passed the Senate on October 6  would amend the Revised School Code to do the following with respect to public school academies (PSAs), urban high school academies, academies, and SOEs.

  • Allow two or more authorizing bodies to issue a contract for a PSA or an SOE under an interlocal agreement.
  • Require educational goals to include demonstrated pupil academic achievement for all groups of pupils.
  • Permit contracts for the operation of the same configuration of age or grade levels at more than one site.
  • Delete requirements for a PSA or SOE to comply with a school district's collective bargaining agreement.
  • Exempt property of a PSA, urban high school academy, or SOE from real and personal property taxes.
  • Require enrollment at a PSA or an SOE authorized by a community college to be open to all pupils in the State meeting the admission policy.
  • Require a petition to be signed by at least 5%, rather than 15%, of the electors in a school district, in order to place the question of issuing a PSA or SOE contract on the ballot.
  • Revise provisions concerning the responsibilities of an authorizing body and the revocation of a contract.

The bill also would require public school academies [aka “PSA’s” or “charters”], urban high school academies, and schools of excellence to comply with laws concerning participation in State assessments, data collection systems, State level student growth models, State accountability and accreditation systems, and other public comparative data collection required for public schools.” Senate Fiscal Agency, (no House Fiscal Agency analysis for substitute H-4 is yet available from the Michigan Legislature website.)

There are amendments that are being drafted for consideration on the floor (or perhaps even another substitute bill proposed on the floor with multiple changes from what passed out of committee). So, I need to reserve judgment on what I will ultimately be asked to vote on until I have a chance to review the final version.

Despite that, my preference is to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state. Michigan has been at the cap of 150 university authorized charter public schools since 1999, and more than 70 percent of charters have a waiting list of students who would like to enroll. It appears parents want the choice of charter schools. I trust parents to make the best choices they know for their children.

Of particular concern are those areas in which there are failing schools. Parents need to have options on where their child(ren) receive their education if their traditional public school is not performing. For many children, receiving a good education is their only chance to escape poverty – as it was for me and my five siblings. (There may or may not be an amendment restricting the cap lift to those areas, which I lean toward favoring, but working with Policy Staff, we could not come up with satisfactory wording to do that,so, my support for SB 618 is not contingent upon that change). Having been a school business manager for over 7 years in declining enrollment school districts, I understand the difficulty in balancing the budgets with declining revenues, which further departures of students to charters would make worse. Nonetheless, the needs of the students must come first.

I have received much communication from individuals and groups for and against the bill – against the bill from members of the educational establishment and for the bill from others – as expected. The data presented by both sides has been cherry-picked to support their position – as expected. The bottom line is: there are average, above average and below average charter schools just as there are traditional public schools. What I have seen little of is data on the “student growth” from year to year in charter schools, but what little I have seen looks favorable. Comparing charter schools performance to the average of traditional public schools is meaningless unless you control for the difference in demographics between the groups compared. Comparing the charter schools’ performance with that of the neighboring traditional public schools is better data, but still not conclusive until you examine the growth in learning from year to year while a student within the charter schools, especially when you consider that the performance of many students are adversely affected by the preparation they received from their previous schools. From the data concerning student growth, as I said, it looks favorable.

For example, consider the case of the 55 charters authorized by Central Michigan University (including the South Arbor Charter Academy, located in Pittsfield Township on Carpenter Road, which ranked number 3 among the “Top 25 Charter Schools in the State” ranked by 2010 MEAP scores).

                                                              CMU                  State Average

Minority                                                            60.7%              30.2%

Qualify for Free or Reduced Price Lunch              67.8%              46.1%

Qualify for Special Education Services                 10.0%              13.0%

Bldg.that received Education Yes! Ratings of A, B or C     95.2%              83.8%

Bldg. that Achieved Adequate Yearly Progress                  85.5%              79.1%

The CMU authorized charters located in Detroit, Flint, Lansing and Grand Rapids did better in both reading and math than all four of their surrounding resident districts. Even more impressive is that, despite the higher percentage of minority or those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, continuously enrolled CMU authorized charter schools meet or exceed the statewide average on math and reading proficiency and show consistent student growth in learning. That is, the longer they have the student within its program, the better the student does compared to the state averages – just what you would want for the student. Minority kids in poverty can learn when given a chance to enroll in quality programs!

Years Enrolled Before Fall 2010

2010 MEAP Achievement    0                      1                      2                      3+      

Math                                    73.9%              77.6%              78.8%              85.5%

Reading                               72.6%              73.8%              75.4%              83.6%

The challenge is to sort out the below average charter schools from the rest. Public Act 203 of 2010 already requires the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to identify the lowest achieving 5% of public schools (both charters and traditional public schools) and place them into a State School Reform/Redesign District. The H-4 version of the SB 618 includes the requirement for pupil growth as the most important factor of keeping a charter. At p. 14, line 23 - p. 15, line 2.  On page 18, lines 9-12 also mandate participation in the same accountability assessments as traditional K-12s. Further, a special sub-committee has been formed to study what, if any, further provisions are needed to enhance the quality of all of our schools.

An issue related to charters that many are not aware of (but which I am working on as a member of the Work Group on the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System) is the problem of the $46 billion of unfunded liability in the program that would be “stranded” and left to be paid by the districts with fewer employees than currently with further expansion of charter enrollment. It is a major issue, but one which I expect will be part of another package of bills to be handled after the first of the year. The charter school question will be just one part of the necessary solution.

This charter issue is just one of many issues we face in the legislature in which we must stay laser focused on what is best for the students.

Rick Olson, State Representative, 55th District
989 House Office Bldg.

P..S. There is a lot of misinformation flying around regarding charter schools. A good unbiased source of information is the State of Michigan Department of Education’s “Michigan Charter Schools Questions and Answers”, revised 2009.

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