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    The following is an interview with Sara Mead, who as a Senior Policy Analyst at Education Sector wrote an extensive analysis: "Maintenance Required: Charter Schooling in Michigan"

    November 25 2008

    Mead: I now work for another think tank called the New America Foundation that can be found at www.newamerica.net  I work on education policy but I have since moving from Education Sector shifted from focusing on K-12 and early education policy generally to focusing primarily on early childhood policy. I do a lot of work on pre-K and other programs for young children but I still stay involved with charter schools because that's the area that I originally did most my work and research in.

    Erica: In your article you outline the achievements and short-falls of charter schools in Michigan, what seems to be the biggest short-fall of charter schools in Michigan?

    Mead: I think the largest short fall in Michigan, is two-fold. The first one is some of the issues of failures and a lack of accountability with some of the schools. The original schools and some of the authorizers early on did not do a good job of holding the schools accountable. There were some low quality schools and that has improved over time because some of the authorizers have started shutting some of the schools down. There are still some quality issues, although there are some very high-quality charter schools in Michigan as well. The other failure is the movement has become so politicized in Michigan around charter schools that it has really put a damper on the ability of charter schools to grow any further. Its also made it difficult for progressives who might agree with some of the goals of the charter school movement because charter schools have been seen as such a conservative issue in the state.

    Erica: In your article you outline the major obstacles that charter schools are facing, what do you think is the greatest obstacle?

     

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    Mead: I think there are two obstacles that they are facing. One is funding, charter schools in Michigan get less funding comparable to other public schools and that the funding formula for charter schools is not very well defined.  The second is not so much political opposition as that the issue has become so politicized in Michigan. Part of the problem is that there are people who oppose charter schools primarily but not all democrats oppose charter schools. Also the fact that there are people who support charter school for ideological reasons who are opposing things that would improve the quality of charter schools. Michigan has a greater number of charters schools and a more substantial percentage of children in charter schools than most other states. Even with a greater percentage of kids in charter schools than in most states, Michigan still has a very small percentage, well under 10% of students enrolled in charter schools. The other thing to keep in mind in Michigan is that parts of the state have a lot public school choice not just from charter schools but inter-district choice, Detroit suburbs for example there is a great deal of inter-district choice available to families. In terms of benefits from charter schools in Michigan I would say there are three major benefits. One is providing choice to parents and you can see that in the examples of some of the more customized schools, they really do offer different types of educational programs to areas of needs and interests; bilingual schools, schools that deliver Montessori programs. A second benefit is the fact that charter schools are doing more with less. They get less many than public schools and they have figured out ways to use those resources efficiently to educate students. At a time when we have a tight state budget, particularly in Michigan, having examples of how you can do more with less is something that would be beneficial for other people to learn from. The third example is that there are some very excellent charter schools in Michigan and I highlight some of those in my report

    Erica: Is there anything that you would like to add that you think would be beneficial to understanding the role of charters in Michigan?

    Mead: Sure, there are two points that are important. When we think about charter schools, we think about the individual schools, but really what charter schools are is not as much about the individual school as about being a governance innovation. It is a new way of creating schools and a new way of governing schools. Within the innovation you are going to see a lot of variation in the types of schools created. Fundamentally, the question isn't necessarily about the individual schools, but rather the governance mechanism is a good way to bring new providers in to the education system. The second thing that I think is important to keep in mind is the role of authorizers. Authorizers are the entities that are approved under the law to bring up charter schools because you can just start up a charter school. You need to go to one of the certain agencies that are authorized in the law. The authorizers we have learned in the last several years are really the key to determining whether you have a good quality or bad quality charter school and also to determine how many charter schools you are going to have. In Michigan that is very important because initially some of the authorizers were not very good at monitoring the quality of their schools and really were not driven by motives that were about school quality necessarily, so there were quality problems with the schools. Overtime the authorizers have improved. We have also learned a lot more about what it takes to be a good authorizer. Now, Central Michigan University is regarded as one of the best authorizers in the country, they exercise rigorous oversight of the schools they improve and that is important you can not just approve schools and ignore them afterwards, you have to keep an eye on them. The final point is that Michigan is pretty unique in that, it uses public state universities as authorizers, which is different than in most states. In most states you have either schools districts doing the authorizing or state bodies, such as, Arizona had a state charter school board. So in Michigan having universities authorizing is rather unusual. The reason Michigan has so many charter schools now is because those universities early on were very aggressive about authorizing charter schools and the reason the growth has stopped is because the universities had a legal limit of how many they could offer

    Erica: Do you think that cap is something that will be lifted on university authorizers or is it something that is going to remain stable?

    Mead: The way the politics have gone in the state it has become such a politicized issue. There some things I think they could do to expand the number of schools that are allowed. The first one would be to allow schools to operate multiple campuses. Right now under the law one a very few of the charter schools can operate under multiple campuses and they are all located in Detroit. In a number of states, charter schools are allowed to operate multiple campuses over an entire schools district or over a larger area. If you allow the charter schools in Michigan to do that then some of the successful charter schools can duplicate and serve more kids without actually increasing the cap. The second thing that you could do is exempt charter schools that are meeting high performance standards from the cap so that if a charter school is performing above the statewide average in academics or is making annual yearly progress then they could be exempt from the cap and that would allow another school to be created. What is important is that we do not just raise the number of schools, but if we do that we make sure that any expansion highlights quality.

    Erica: How would you explain the relationship between the Education Management Organization's (EMO's) and the authorizers?

    Mead: Michigan is a little different in this regards too. The authorizer's job is to oversee the school and hold it accountable but the authorizers job is not to run the school and is not supposed to get involved decisions related to the management or operation of the school. The authorizer is primarily supposed to look at the school from a higher level to make sure they are spending money appropriately and are the getting good results for kids. As well as making sure they are following all the laws. Once the authorizer is actually authorizing the school, there is an independent school board that holds the charter to the school. So that each charter school has its own board, similar to a school district board. That board has the authority to contract with an EMO to run the school.  Really, if the relationship is working the right way the EMO is actually an employee or contractor to the school that is employed by the school's independent board. One of the issues in Michigan is that this relationship has not always worked the way it is supposed to. The EMO may have multiple schools that they run, but it is supposed to have a separate relationship where it reports to each independent charter school board and then that charter school board ultimately is responsible for its outcomes to the authorizer.

    My thanks to Sara Mead who now is a member at The New America Foundation. 
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