Anti-charter-school wolves are circling in Ohio, howling about low test scores but ignoring the fact that the same low scores are shared by many district schools (see here). Yet, retreating to the failed one-size-fits-all philosophy of the past, while popular in some quarters, won't get the state's neediest children far. School choice, a family's ability to chose a school they believe works best for them, remains a popular option in Ohio (see here) and the state's charter schools can still get it right. Achieving long-term success, however, might require studying the playbook in Michigan, where charters have made far more progress against institutional opposition that has been just as fierce as in Ohio.
To learn why, The Ohio Education Gadfly buzzed to Detroit November 1 and 2 for the 10th Annual Michigan Charter Schools Conference. We were impressed, starting with the Michigan Association of Public Charter Academies (MAPSA) President Dan Quisenberry's opening remark that, in Michigan, charter school "excellence is not an option, it is an expectation."
Quisenberry had the stats to back the boast. Michigan has higher quality charter schools than Ohio. Charter public schools in Detroit exceeded their home district on 24 of 27 state achievement tests in 2006-07-up from 20 the year before. They tied on two assessment categories and were within one point on the remaining assessment. Charters in Flint, Grand Rapids, and Lansing experienced similar success (see here). And, more than 100 charters that include high-school grades have achieved an 86 percent graduation rate, 12 points above their local districts. Contrast this with Ohio's charters, which, as a whole, have not outperformed their home districts and have not provided a markedly higher quality academic option for families frustrated with their local public schools.
So why does Michigan have higher performing charters than Ohio? Michigan's program is only slightly larger than Ohio's-100,000 students vs. our 78,000-and a few years senior. Their law passed in 1993, ours in 1998. Michigan has benefited from three big advantages. First, the Great Lake State has strong charter school sponsors (the organizations that give birth to charter schools, ensure school freedoms, and ultimately hold the schools accountable for results). Michigan sponsors are well-funded, have public reputations they want to protect (as they are universities, colleges, and school districts), and take accountability very seriously. Second, charter schools can open anywhere in the state and, in contrast to Ohio, are not constrained to opening just in the state's most troubled school districts. Third, Michigan has really strong, really unified charter school leadership at the statehouse.
In Michigan, the charter school community has banded together to work diligently to improve school performance. Proponents also have united in the face of divisive partisan politics. This was evident among the more than 3,000 educators at the conference. The sense of camaraderie among Michigan's charter school community was palpable, as was the feeling of pride and the culture of cooperation. Michigan's charter school community recognizes both the value of school choice to families and the importance of delivering academic results. They know they are part of something bigger than themselves and their individual schools. They also believe they are changing the face of public education for the better for thousands of children.
The conference had something for everyone-instructional tracks for classroom teachers, leadership sessions for administrators, and governance training for charter-school board members. Aric Dersham of National Heritage Academies shared practical strategies for identifying, hiring, and retaining top-notch teachers in the charter sector. Communications strategist Mark Weaver reviewed the basics of charter-school public relations and how to deal with the media in the face of increasingly intense partisan attacks. Mike Feinburg, one of the founders of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), talked about KIPP's national expansion plans and how extraordinary outcomes require extraordinary actions. Nationally recognized board governance experts spoke to charter school board members about the unique cultural challenges facing urban charter school boards. (Presentations and handouts from most sessions are available on MAPSA's website.)
At the closing luncheon, the Michigan Charter School Honors Choir performed. These children were recruited from the state's annual summer charter school fine arts camp. The choir was living proof that Michigan's charter schools are Delivering the Dream, the theme of the conference, by providing quality public education to Michigan's children.
If Ohioans are going to duplicate the success of charters in Michigan and other states, then several things must happen, and soon. The Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools must rally the charter-school community around school quality. The state's charter-school sponsors must enforce accountability standards and make the hard decisions to shutter persistently low-performing schools, while state policy should encourage and support these efforts.
In short, the entire charter-school community in Ohio must embrace Michigan's high expectations and standards. Ohio has a rough road ahead to reach wide-spread charter school excellence, but we are inspired by what is happening in Michigan and believe that in Ohio, some day, excellence will not be an option but an expectation.