By Steve Gunn
LANSING, Mich. – Critics are correct when they say that the success rate of charter schools across the nation has been mixed.
A recent study of charter schools in 16 states showed an average of only 17 percent outperformed traditional public schools while 37 percent did worse.
But maybe that’s because most states don’t manage their charter schools like Michigan does.
Charter schools in the Great Lakes State were recently recognized by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) as “clear cut success stories.”
They routinely outperform traditional public schools in student reading and math scores, a fact that is even more impressive considering the high percentage of lower-income students that enroll in the state’s charter schools.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading crusader for education reform and school choice, saluted Michigan’s charter school success during his keynote speech at last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference.
“Charter schools outperform traditional schools in this state,” which justifies the 2011 decision to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in Michigan, Bush said.
Why are Michigan charter schools doing so well?
According to Michael Van Beek from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the answer is simple. The schools are flourishing because state law allows them to flourish.
The law allows any number of entities to authorize charters – most significantly universities – a welcome change from the oppressive tradition in many states of requiring local school board approval before a charter school can open.
In those states many proposed charter schools never get off the ground. And those that do are often forced by local school boards to hire union teachers and function very much like the traditional public school down the road.
In those cases there seems to be almost no point in having charter schools at all.
State law also gives a fair shake to for-profit charter management companies, which on the average have outperformed other types of management companies, according to the CREDO study.
Michigan charter schools are also exempt from tenure laws, meaning they are free to hire and fire teachers based on performance.
As Van Beek wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, “This helps keep the best teachers where they belong, in the classroom, and the worst where they belong – looking for another line of work.”
Who says poor kids can’t learn?
Conventional wisdom says that schools with high percentages of poor and/or minority students will not thrive academically.
But Michigan’s 274 charter schools, with more than 130,000 students, have demonstrated that conventional wisdom can be wrong.
Consider the following statistics: 71 percent of Michigan charter school students are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches, compared with 48 percent in traditional public schools. The minority population in Michigan charter schools is 68 percent, compared to 31 percent in traditional public schools.
If those poor and minority students are supposed to struggle, somebody forgot to tell them.
According to the Stanford CREDO report, 42 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are outperforming conventional public schools in math and 35 percent are doing the same in reading. Only six percent of charters are underperforming in math and only two percent are missing the mark in reading.
Between 2007 and 2011, typical Michigan charter school students made annual academic gains in reading and math equivalent to about two additional months of learning, compared with their peers in traditional schools. After five years in a charter school, the average student made cumulative academic gains equivalent to an additional year of learning, the report said.
Those results hold up in Detroit, where nearly half of the adult population is functionally illiterate and 81 percent of students are from minority groups. Forty-seven percent of Detroit charter schools performed significantly better than traditional schools in reading and 49 percent performed better in math.
An average Detroit charter school student made academic gains worth about three additional months of learning in both reading and math, compared with their peers in traditional schools.
Those type of statistics put Michigan charter schools far above charter in other states. CREDO’s charter school analysis show that of 19 states only Louisiana and New Jersey come close to results like Michigan’s, according to the report.
The secret to Michigan’s success is simple – charter schools need the freedom to be innovative and aggressive in their search for excellence, and the freedom to operate without the burden of union labor and collective bargaining contracts.
Michigan law gives them that freedom.
That’s why the Center for Education Reform recently gave the state one of only four “A” grades on its report card for charter school laws.
As Van Beek put it in his editorial, “If states want to create a healthy charter school sector to boost outcomes for students, the Michigan experience offers valuable lessons.”