WMU News

Book on Michigan charter schools offers lessons for all

March 26, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- When it comes down to access and equity, student achievement, efficiency and oversight, Michigan's 184 charter schools often come up short.

So say Drs. Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson, authors of the new book "What's Public About Charter Schools? Lessons Learned About Choice and Accountability." For the past five years, Miron and Nelson, researchers based at Western Michigan University's Evaluation Center, have been analyzing evidence from charter schools in Michigan, home to one of the nation's most permissive laws and host to nearly 60,000 youngsters enrolled in the public-private hybrid schools. Michigan's reform is also unique in comparison to other states' efforts in that 75 percent of Michigan's charter schools are operated by private for-profit companies.

In addition to presenting findings from their research, the noted charter school experts also weigh in on the current issue of whether Michigan should lift its cap on the number of university-authorized charters, now limited to 150 schools.

The charter school movement in Michigan grew too quickly to allow school founders and authorizers to get it right, the authors say. And legislators should not be too quick to lift the cap. Instead, policymakers ought to examine carefully the reasons for poor performance in charter schools, and close weak schools in order to make room for others with promising ideas.

"What we've learned is that charter schools, on the whole, are not working well in Michigan," Miron says. "This doesn't mean categorically, however, that charter schools don't work."

Instead, the problems with Michigan's charter schools--from a lack of diversity among students to paltry gains on standardized tests--are ones that can be fixed.

"The ultimate reason for charter schools to exist is to build achievement," says Nelson. "What we're saying is let's look at the evidence and reassess what we're doing."

The researchers, who also have conducted studies of charter schools in Illinois, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Ohio, offer an array of findings that point to the failings of charter schools in the areas of diversity, access for students with special needs, test scores and professional opportunities for teachers

At the same time, Miron and Nelson found that Michigan's charter schools fare better when it comes to customer satisfaction. The research suggests charter school students, parents and teachers seem generally happy with their schools' curriculum.

The architects of the reform believed that charter schools could promote change in traditional public schools by developing and sharing innovations. "Our findings suggest that charter schools have largely not been successful in developing innovative practices. They are, however, proving to be a lever for change as they compete with districts for students," Miron says.

Increasingly, the traditional public schools are changing the way they relate to parents by adopting new programs, employing more marketing tactics and sharpening their missions, largely in response to the pressure brought by charter schools. Therefore, the change that is occurring is due to competition and not the replication of innovative programs which were found to be lacking in most charter schools.

While much of the book focuses on findings, it also presents readers with fundamental policy dilemmas associated with charter schools.

"How do you balance satisfaction versus achievement gains? Or quality versus equality?" Nelson asks. "And just how much value does choice carry? The charter school movement is a politically ambidextrous one," he says, referring to conservatives who see them as a precursor to vouchers, and on the other hand, liberals who view charter schools as more palatable choice. "We're going to be talking about them for a long time."

Ultimately, "What's Public About Charter Schools?" is not a wholesale indictment of Michigan charter schools, but rather a resource for policymakers nationwide who want to learn from Michigan's experience.

"While we researchers are dealing with the many questions posed by the presence of charter schools, "says Nelson, "it's up to the decision-makers and consumers to forget about the sacred cows, admit where there are problems and weaknesses, and make room for better schools."

In addition to their recently completed work, Miron and Nelson last year were awarded a $400,000 federal grant to study charter schools nationwide and identify factors that drive their success and failures.

Miron and Nelson are affiliated with the WMU Evaluation Center, an international leader committed to advancing the theory and practice of evaluation in education and human services.

The new book is published by Corwin Press, Inc. of Thousand Oaks, Calif. It is available at the WMU Bookstore, and can be ordered through Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble bookstores. For more information, contact Corwin Press acquisitions editor Rachel Livesy at (800) 818-7243 or call the authors at (269) 387-5895. Copies of their state evaluations of charter schools and background information on select other projects can be accessed on the Internet at <www.wmich.edu/evalctr>.

Media contact: Gail H. Towns, 269 387-8400, gail.towns@wmich.edu

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