/ Charter Public Schools: New Options for Michigan Families


Nationally, over 2100 charter schools are now serving half a million children in the U.S. These schools have been controversial and politicized, a factor that challenges authorizers and schools alike. Despite this, proponents feel that charter schools offer a strong diversity of programs to the public, and many feel that the charter school movement has helped to improve all schools. With no evidence that this entrepreneurial movement will decline, charter schools are establishing themselves as legitimate providers of public education.

Key Words: charter schools, public education

    1. James N. Goenner is the Executive Director of the Charter Schools Office at Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, and an associate member of the College of Graduate Studies.return to text

    2. Angie Irwin serves as the Director of Public Information for the Charter Schools Office at Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, Michiganreturn to text

    America's quest for educational excellence is being propelled by the charter schools movement. And with 189 charter public schools serving nearly 70,000 students, Michigan is a leading pioneer in this new reform effort. Clearly, families across Michigan are taking advantage of 1993 legislation allowing the creation of these new public school options. By responding to the needs of parents, students, and communities, charter public schools are becoming increasingly popular choices. By infusing competition and market forces into education, the charter concept is also helping make all schools more responsible and accountable.

    The Charter Concept

    The charter concept holds that schools should be freed from unnecessary rules and regulations in exchange for being held accountable for academic results. New England educator, Ray Budde, who suggested that small groups of teachers be granted contracts, or charters, by their local school boards to explore new approaches for teaching and learning, first introduced the charter idea. Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, brought national attention to the idea in a 1989 speech at the National Press Club where he suggested that local school boards could charter an entire school (US Charter, 2001). From there, the idea took hold, and Minnesota adopted the first charter school law in the country in 1991. Today, 38 states along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have passed charter school laws. Nationally, over 2,100 charter schools are serving a half million students this year (Manno, 2001).

    A charter is simply a written agreement. One of the best known charters dates back to 1215 when the Magna Carta was signed to guarantee the English certain freedoms. Early explorers signed charters that defined their expeditions. The foundation of the United Nations is outlined in a 1945 charter.

    In education, the term charter is used to describe the written contract between a school and the organization that authorizes it to operate. The charter contract is essentially a performance contract containing detailed academic and financial goals against which the school's performance will be judged. Charter schools are usually founded by a team of education professionals, parents, and community and business leaders who share a common vision. These teams have the flexibility to shape each aspect of the school and its programs, pulling together best practices from around the world.

    Michigan's Leadership

    Michigan's charter law is ranked as a strong law by the Center for Education Reform (Center for Education Reform, 200 1), because it allows for multiple entities to authorize charters (legally called public school academies). These entities are Michigan's 550 plus local school districts, 57 intermediate school districts, 28 community colleges, and 15 state universities. Regardless of which entity authorizes the charter, the schools all share the following characteristics:

    1. free—they do not charge tuition;
    2. open to all—official lotteries are conducted when applications outnumber seats;
    3. governed by a publicly appointed board;
    4. required to use certified teachers, just like all public schools;
    5. administer the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP test); and
    6. subject to state health, fire and safety codes like all public schools.

    Each charter public school is an independent, autonomous public school that functions as its own school district, allowing it to better respond to the needs of the students and parents it serves.

    Oversight and Accountability

    In 1994, Central Michigan University became the first university in the state to authorize a charter school. Rather that wait on the sidelines, Central Michigan University took a risk and supported the charter schools effort, believing it would serve as a catalyst for educational improvements benefiting all Michigan children. Founded as a normal college, the university views its involvement as expanding upon a tradition of leadership that began in the late 1800's when it educated its first public school teachers. Today, Central Michigan University is the nation's foremost leading authorizer, having licensed 58 schools that serve nearly 25,000 Michigan students. Seven other Michigan universities have followed their lead, including Eastern Michigan, Ferris State, Grand Valley State, Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan, Oakland, and Saginaw Valley State.

    The competition for charters is very keen. Successful applicants need to have a promising vision, sound business plan, and quality educational program. Further, they must be able to demonstrate the ability to actually start and implement the school effectively. Most charters are authorized for a five-year period, with contract renewals available based on the school's academic, financial, and operational performance. The core components of a charter contract typically include the following elements (Michigan Compiled Laws):

    1. a resolution establishing the public board of directors of the school;
    2. legal terms and conditions of the contract;
    3. articles of incorporation and bylaws;
    4. a fiscal agent and oversight agreement;
    5. a description of staff responsibilities;
    6. a physical plant description;
    7. a description of the governance structure;
    8. educational goals and programs;
    9. the curriculum;
    10. methods of pupil assessment;
    11. admissions policies and criteria;
    12. the attendance policy and notice of public enrollment;
    13. the school-day schedule and school calendar; and
    14. the age or grade range of pupils to be served.

    Once the contract is signed by the authorizing board and the charter public school board, the school is legally able to operate. Even though authorizers play a critical role in helping establish charter public schools, they do not own, nor do they operate them.

    Rather, the daily operation of each school is the responsibility of the school's governing board and its administration or management. Authorizers are responsible for overseeing that each school they authorize complies with their charter contract and applicable state and federal law. Through site visits, regular reporting and other means, authorizers help ensure that the schools are staying on course and fulfilling their missions. This direct oversight mechanism is not present at other public schools.

    Although the concept of chartering was designed to free schools from unnecessary rules, regulations, and red tape in exchange for innovation and accountability for student achievement, this regulatory relief is mostly an illusion. Faced with essentially the same compliance and reporting requirements that apply to local school districts, many charter administrators are finding themselves torn between spending time on paperwork or with the children they serve. Without a central office staff to spread the regulatory burden, charter administrators are struggling to fill the role of both instructional leader and compliance reporter. Meanwhile, critics contend that these same rules, regulations, and red tape have been hindering traditional schools for years. But rather than join the effort to reduce and streamline the volumes of regulation, they have lobbied for more rules. This tactic may eventually prove detrimental to the charter schools concept if it ultimately leads to the re-creation of the current bureaucratic reporting system.

    Charter Challenges

    Unfortunately, charter public schools have been controversial and politicized in Michigan, a factor that challenges authorizers and schools alike. Groups that oppose charter schools often raise concerns about funding because each student that leaves a traditional school district to enroll in a charter public school takes approximately $6,500 with them. Critics also contend that charter public schools are not accountable because they are governed by appointed rather than elected boards. Further, they believe that charter schools are dismantling public education by "siphoning-off" the low cost, high achieving students, leaving traditional school districts with the highest cost and most challenging students.

    So far, these fears appear to be more imaginative than sustentative. According to The Hudson Institute's Educational Excellence Network, 63 percent of students attending charter schools are minority members, 55 percent are poor, 19 percent have limited English proficiency (LEP), and 19 percent have disabilities (Center for Education Reform, 2001).

    In Michigan, more than 50 percent of charter students are minorities, with the state average being 19 percent; approximately 40 percent of Michigan's charter students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Charters often begin as elementary schools and add a grade each year through twelfth grade. Middle and/or high school grades are offered in about two-thirds of charters, and approximately 1,000 seniors graduated from charter schools in June 2001 (Michigan Public School Academics, 2001). The challenge for charter schools is to offer quality options to a broad spectrum of students, many who have not previously had positive educational experiences.

    The Face of Charter Schools

    Charter public schools offer a strong diversity of programs, reflecting a multitude of educational philosophies. Avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, charters are emphasizing low student/teacher ratios and individualized instruction. Some schools use a back-to-basics approach, where students focus on skills such as reading, writing, and math until they have mastered them. Others have adopted developmental approaches such as Montessori. Still others have incorporated themes like performing arts, environmental science, health care, or automotive technology. The majority of charter schools have established themselves in our urban communities like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, and Lansing. Some have located in suburbia while a small number has located in rural areas, including the Upper Peninsula.

    Regardless of their focus, all charter school founders share a commitment to serve the educational needs of the children in their community. Carmen and George N'Namdi are responsible for the founding and creation of the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit. Nataki, meaning "of high birth" and Talibah, meaning "seeker of knowledge." George and Carmen's motivation is as moving as the progress this school has realized over its six-year existence as a charter public school.

    Nataki Talibah was born to George and Carmen N'Namdi approximately 20 years ago. At 14 months of age, Nataki Talibah tragically died when the pacifier she wore around her neck strangled her. The school has become a tribute to this child. George and Carmen N'Namdi wanted to "build something" in their daughter's name and memory and based their dream on the two visions they cared about most deeply — children and education.

    Today, this charter school houses approximately 350 children in a brand-new facility, enjoying a philosophy that has a unique teaching style designed to preserve students' cultural heritage, while teaching them to be less racial. Twice a day, they use a reflection period to focus on their learning. This time helps students calm themselves and focus on positive learning behaviors.

    Positive behavior is a key concern for parents when making a choice in their children's education. Behavior was also a main concern for parents choosing Livingston Developmental Academy (LDA) in Howell. When this school opened in 1996, a large number of students had been prescribed the drug Ritalin to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Founder Chuck Stockwell used a learning philosophy he helped develop with Dr. Steve Ingersoll called Integrated Visual Learning (IVL) and significantly reduced the number of Ritalin-receiving students to just 10 of the 410 students enrolled in 1998-1999.

    LDA is structured in multi-age classrooms that focus on skill mastery, instead of grade promotion. Student progress is measured every 10 weeks, and they move within four multi-age classrooms called Navigators, Voyagers, Exploratory, and Discovery, at their own pace. "There is no social promotion and no grade flunking, so the stigma that they have failed is gone," Stockwell said.

    Recently, LDA was re-dedicated in memory of Chuck Stockwell's daughter, Cheryl, who lost a long battle with cancer. Fifteen-year-old Cheryl has become a permanent spirit at the LDA facility that has been fittingly re-named the Cheryl Stockwell Academy. This is another tribute to what education is all about — our children.

    While not every charter school commemorates a life once lived, every charter school does strive to make an impact with communities. Oftentimes, this is done through community partnerships with local community and business organizations and direct involvement with families.

    The Countryside Charter School located in Benton Harbor opened its doors in 1997 with a mission to promote the development and preservation of agriculture. Its 75-acre facility houses nearly 500 students and allows teachers to deliver innovative instructional programs through the use of the surrounding soil. Math skills are often taught through the selling of agricultural goods. Kindergartners who read Beatrix Potter demonstrate reading comprehension through planting a garden like the one in the story.

    In the spring of 2000, Countryside students earned $8,000 for special projects and field trips by selling bedding plants in the schools greenhouse. The school was sensitive to the needs of area greenhouses and did not undercut prices. In fact, many of the local greenhouses ended up purchasing plants from the students themselves.

    The agricultural knowledge of these students is further supplemented through collaborative community efforts. Countryside has developed partnerships with Michigan State University, the county soil conservation district, Pheasants Forever, and, as evidenced above, support from area greenhouses and "fellow" conservationists.

    It is no doubt that charter schools employ talented staff to implement their programs. Charters were first to routinely offer all-day kindergarten. Many also offer foreign languages in the lowest grades and have extended the school day and school year adding more learning time. Feedback indicates that parents are also fond of the small, safe, family-like atmospheres being exhibited by charters.

    Facilities and Financing

    Obtaining the facilities and financing for charter schools is a monumental challenge. Vacant school buildings that meet health and safety codes are nearly non-existent. In addition, charter public schools are not permitted by law to levy ad valorem taxes for any purpose. Therefore, they must fund their facility costs out of their state operating dollars, whereas traditional school districts have bond and millage monies to rely on.

    In order to borrow money, charter public schools must be able to demonstrate their long-term viability to the financing market. To assist schools in this process and enhance lenders willingness to loan money, some authorizers have established a direct pay mechanism that routes school loan payments directly to lenders. This mechanism has effectively induced more and more lenders to invest in charters. Some charter public schools are turning to tax-exempt lease purchasing in order to finance their facility and equipment costs. This mechanism allows schools to avoid having to make a large down payment, yet still allows them to acquire ownership at the end of the lease-purchase term.

    Capital financing for facilities is perhaps the most challenging barrier impeding the long-term expansion of the charter schools movement. Much like individuals must demonstrate an impeccable credit rating to receive personal loans, charter public schools must have "clean" performance records to borrow money. This demands charter public schools to be sound stewards of their dollars and places another level of accountability on them.

    Secondary Effects

    Many believe that charter schools are helping improve all schools in Michigan. Superintendents are quietly saying that the threat of competition from charter schools has given them the leverage they need to implement change in their own districts. In fact, Lansing School District was highlighted nationally in an article by Senator Joseph Lieberman (D - Connecticut) for the dramatic reforms it undertook after five charters opened in 1995 and attracted over one thousand students. In response, the mayor and the district formed a blue ribbon panel to discuss ways to improve Lansing schools. Their changes are being implemented today to the benefit of the children they serve.

    Many schools are embarking on new marketing campaigns and incorporating fresh ideas into their school systems. This year, Detroit Public Schools is offering full-day kindergarten for the first time, following the lead of many charters. Both the Flint and Saginaw School Districts have advertised their systems and programs inviting students who have left to "come back," as they, too, attempt to improve their offerings. Clearly, these efforts would not have existed ten years ago when traditional school districts were the only choice in town and students were assigned to them based on where they lived.

    Future Outlook

    There is no question that the charter schools movement is changing the landscape of public education. Since 1991, charter schools have grown in popularity and flourished around the country. This is evidenced by the number of states, schools, and students who have embraced the charter movement and the hundreds of students who are on charter school waiting lists. There is no evidence of this momentum declining.

    Charter public schools offer the opportunity to improve American education by infusing the system with competition and market forces. The nature of a market-based, entrepreneurial environment means that charter schools must be effective and efficient in order to survive. Many educational pessimists viewed charters as a novelty that would only be around for the short-term. After nearly 11 years of exponential growth, charter schools are establishing themselves as legitimate providers of public education.

    When given the power of choice, people tend to make decisions based on their individual needs and desires. This is why people often spend more time shopping for a new car than they do picking the right school for their children. Michigan residents all know the story of how our domestic automobile industry was shaken by the influx of smaller, less expensive foreign made cars. Car making and buying in the United States was transformed by persistent foreign competition that taught customers to expect excellence from all cars—foreign or domestic. The same thing can occur in our public schools. Indeed, it must.


    Center for Education Reform (2001). Charter School Highlights and Statistics, http://edreformm.com/pubs/chglance.htm.

    Manno, B. V. (2001). The case against charter schools. The School Administrator. (May). 28.

    Michigan Compiled Laws Sections 380.501 to 380.507, Law Part 6-A-Revised School Code.

    US Charter Schools (2001). Overview of Charter Schools, http://www.uscharterschools.org/pub/uscsdocs/gi/overview.htm.