WMU News

WMU study of charter schools details influence of for-profit firms

Nov. 15, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- The innovation and community involvement that is the goal of Michigan's charter school legislation is being blunted by the influence of for-profit management companies that now run the majority of the state's 172 charter schools.

That is one conclusion of a new study of the state's existing charter schools recently completed by school evaluation specialists in Western Michigan University's Evaluation Center. The study, recently released by the Michigan Department of Education, is one of two follow-up studies funded by the state to examine issues uncovered by researchers in charter school studies completed in 1999. The final WMU report is available online at <www.wmich.edu/evalctr/>.

The study was completed by Dr. Jerry Horn and Dr. Gary Miron, both principal research associates with WMU's highly regarded Evaluation Center. The pair, along with Public Sector Inc. of Lansing, Mich., first studied Michigan's existing charter schools in 1999. Both organizations were asked to do follow-up work to answer the following questions posed by the state:

  • What is the impact of charter schools on local schools and communities?
  • To what extent do students leave charter schools and for what reasons?
  • What is the current and potential role of management companies on the charter initiative?
  • What is the impact of charter schools on student achievement?

One of the biggest surprises to researchers conducting the study was the growth in the number of education management organizations, known as EMOs, that are now steering the Michigan charter school initiative. The study found that 71.4 percent of Michigan's existing charter schools are now being run by EMOs, many of them national firms, rather than through parent or community initiatives. The figure is a dramatic increase from 1995-96, when only 16.7 percent of Michigan charter schools were run by EMOs. Nationwide that current figure is just 10 percent.

"I was surprised that the growth in the number of EMOs has been as rapid as it has," says Horn, director of the project. "Because EMOs primarily work with large charter schools, the schools run by EMOs now account for approximately 80 percent of the charter school enrollment in Michigan. The sad part is that it's become a business and the idealistic folks who help launch the charter school initiative now operate a small proportion of the schools."

Horn and Miron say a concentration of charter schools in the lower elementary grades where costs are lowest and the lack of special education provided in charter schools are two weaknesses that result from the influence of EMOs. They also point to the standard curriculum and instructional approaches in all of an EMO's charters as detrimental to community input and innovation.

"The extensive involvement of EMOs is creating new 'pseudo' school districts in which decisions are made from great distances rather than at the local school level," says Miron.

Other key findings of the study are:

  • Competition from charter schools has spurred public school districts to offer new services.
  • Several districts reported they are negatively impacted by charter schools. To compensate for the loss of revenue, some are cutting services, reducing teaching staffs and, in some cases, closing schools.
  • In terms of absolute scores, students from the host public school districts outperform charter school students in MEAP test results. In terms of gain scores, the host districts gained more than charter schools in all grades and subject areas, except fifth-grade science.
  • Performance on the MEAP tests varied considerably among schools and among groups of schools operated by EMOs. Schools operated by National Heritage Academies showed high test scores, but the scores of students coming into those schools were also high. The poorest performing EMO-managed schools were those run by Edison Schools Inc., the Leona Group and Charter Schools Administrative Services.
  • In larger districts, the movement back and forth between public and charter schools is about equal and most charter schools are recruiting new students from among kindergarten students who have never been in the public school system.
  • Diversity within charter schools is diminished by the fact that many charters cater to certain cultures, ethnic backgrounds and academic programs. A growing trend is for a charter school to select its host community rather than a community initiating the move to host a charter school.
  • Like their public school counterparts, few charter schools have implemented accountability plans.

The study also found that students with special needs are not being well served by charter schools. Approximately half of all the state's charter schools have no special education students enrolled and the total special education population in the state's charter schools is only 3.5 percent. Statewide, the public schools have a special education population of 12.5 percent.

Miron says that while the special education issue was not among the four areas state officials asked them to investigate, the issue came up repeatedly in relation to for-profit management of schools and in relation to the impact charter schools were having on communities.

"During the course of our data collection, it became apparent that one of the main reasons for students leaving charter schools was the lack of special educational services," says Miron. "Likewise, public school districts were reporting that one of the key areas where they were being negatively impacted concerned special education."

Both Horn and Miron are involved in charter school evaluations across the nation and they are quick to point out that the Michigan findings contrast sharply with their findings in such other states as Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Their findings in other areas of the nation, Miron says, have been much more positive.

"In Michigan, although the charter school legislation held promise for reform, innovation and parental involvement, " says Horn, "Those promises have not come to fruition.

"Now that we have some experience with charter schools, perhaps we should take a careful look at what they have accomplished and what expectations they have not met. For example, there is little evidence that charter schools will be able to demonstrate larger gains than district students on the MEAP. Although there may be scattered innovative practices in charter schools, it seems unrealistic to expect major innovations in instructional practices."

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 616 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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