CMU Charter Schools Recognizing Statewide Academic Issues

With the publication of a recent study conducted by the Detroit Free Press, detailing taxpayer money spent on charter schools without much transparency, the purpose and worth of charter schools has again been cast in the statewide spotlight. 

Brad Wever, director of public policy for The Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools, said charter schools are needed to provide schooling that accommodates children in poverty. Central Michigan University is an authorizer to 62 charter schools in Michigan.

“Part of the charter school movement is to serve kids that have been undeserved, (and) typically come in areas where there's high poverty,” Wever said. “Focusing in on those areas is key. We take our job very seriously so that these kids in these areas get what they need to succeed.”

The university is allowed by law as an authorizer to take three percent fee of the per pupil foundation grant. This grant accounts for three percent that each charter school student is granted by the state. A portion of that three percent goes back to the university for providing services. 

One of the issues highlighted by the Detroit Free Press said authorizing universities were not holding schools accountable for underachievement. However, Wever said CMU only gives authorization, and does not oversee the charter schools themselves.

“The legislature allows us to authorize public education from K-12, the state board of education is responsible for the oversight of these schools.” Wever said. “Charter schools are no different than other public schools in regards of meeting the same expectations, regulations and laws.”

After a year-long investigation, the Detroit Free Press found charter schools as a whole fare no better than traditional schools in educating students in poverty. Lisa Diaz, board member of Renaissance Public Academy, a charter school in Mount Pleasant, said the school has a unique educational approach unlike most traditional public schools.

“It’s learning a core subject with project based learning. It’s a grade list environment with promotes team teaching and learning to move around with different subjects not based on age, but ability.” Diaz said. “The students learn at a pace they can actually level with. Its a really unique model of teaching, we have just over 300 students that we try to get at their highest level of learning.”

CMU considers three core questions when issuing a charter contract. They evaluate if the academy’s academic program is successful, organizationally and financially viable, and if there is a demonstration of good faith in following the terms of the charter contract.

The Detroit Free Press said charter schools were no better than traditional schools at educating students in poverty. Basing test result of first year students is unfair, Wever said, in regards of comparing those test grades to state wide expectations.

“What we prefer to look at is how that student is doing in that environment after two to three years,” Wever said. "When we look at that analysis our schools are beating or nearly meeting the statewide average. When we look at districts in most of these areas in three years the students are outperforming, or exceeding the statewide average.”

Due to a lack of authority and oversight, the Detriot Free Press said that a majority of the worst-ranked charter schools in Michigan have been open for 10 or more years. CMU has had 16 charter schools authorized by them close in the last 10 years.

As a board member, Diaz said that all schools in Michigan should be looked under the same accountability, because they need to be globally competitive to prepare the future workforce.

“We need to hold all public schools accountable, not just charter schools," Diaz said. "We have (traditional public) schools in the state that have been operating for decades, charter schools that have been operating for a while and they shouldn't be anymore.”

The special report stated that Michigan has substantially more for-profit companies running schools than any other state. Wever said that a strict process goes into choosing board members, who then oversee the charter schools being authorized by CMU.

“Each of board members goes through a criminal background check, board member orientation and oath of public office among other things,” Wever said. “ We look for people who want no personal gain from being a board member, they give tools and resources.”

Charter schools must go through a strict process before being authorized by CMU. Only nine percent of applications get approved by the university. Accountability and providing better options for students in poverty filled areas exceeds the need for a larger number of schools in the university’s portfolio.

“The key issue is keeping kids as numbers, the school’s priority needs to be what’s best for the students not for the adults. A lot of the time were making decisions that are best for the adults, and that is not ok,” Diaz said. “We have third graders that can’t read, we need to hold ourselves accountable. Looking across the state we have to start saying this is not ok. We can’t base a student’s future on their background and environment.”

The need for charter schools is choice said Wever. To CMU as an authorizer it is important to continuously provide that options for parents who are seeking higher education for their students, no matter their zip code.

“The important thing about keeping charter schools around is the choice of going to a better school. Twenty years ago, your zip code determined where you went to school, it impacted if you were going to college or to be successful in life,” Wever said. “With charter schools parents and students are given the option to do something different.”