WMU News

Charter school research finds wide disparity among states

May 20, 2005

KALAMAZOO--A just-released comparison of charter schools in six states reveals a wide disparity in how well the schools are functioning, and Michigan charter schools fared especially poorly overall, Western Michigan University researchers have found.

The findings are summarized in a paper presented at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting April 11-15 in Montreal, Canada. The paper was written by Dr. Gary Miron, chief of staff of the WMU Evaluation Center. The six states hired the center to examine how their charter schools are performing. Three recently released studies examined charter schools in Ohio, Connecticut and Delaware. Earlier studies were conducted on charter schools in Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

The comparison shows that charter schools in Michigan and Ohio are performing poorly overall, while schools in Connecticut and Delaware consistently outperform traditional public schools. Results for Illinois and Pennsylvania were mixed, with Pennsylvania charter schools showing a very small advantage over traditional public schools.

From this comparison, Miron concludes that a significant contributor to the success or failure of each state's charter school initiatives stems from the laws passed that allow them and the political environment in which those laws were created. The paper, titled "Strong Charter School Laws are Those That Result in Positive Outcomes," contends that charter school laws should be judged by their positive outcomes rather than by the amount of autonomy they grant.

Both Michigan and Ohio, spurred by a heated political atmosphere, jumped headlong into their charter school initiatives. Connecticut and Delaware have been much more deliberate in their entry into the charter school realm.

"That's a big lesson for both Michigan and Ohio," Miron says. "Ohio started later, but they scaled up their reform very rapidly and now they've had to impose a moratorium for a bit. When you rush into a reform the way Michigan did, there isn't time for charter school authorizers to get the tools or the mechanisms in place to do effective oversight "

Recently released Evaluation Center studies of charter school movements in Delaware and Connecticut paint a different picture. Delaware officials eased into the movement, saw there were some problems and imposed a moratorium until better safeguards were put in place. The moratorium was then lifted, and Delaware now has 13 charter schools. By contrast, the number of charter schools in Michigan exploded in the late 1990s until a cap of 150 university-authorized charter schools was reached in 1999.

Connecticut also stepped more carefully into its charter school initiative by providing better oversight, Miron says. The state currently has 14 charters, and in cases where low-functioning schools arose, Connecticut officials have either forced or persuaded those schools to close.

"In Connecticut, they have clear expectations and a willingness to act when those expectations are not met," Miron says.

Both Delaware and Connecticut have been highly selective in approving charter applications, which is one of the best ways to ensure strong charter schools, Miron says.

Lack of accountability also was a problem both in Michigan and Ohio. Performance data and other pertinent information sometimes were not available because large numbers of schools do not submit this information as required by law in their annual reports, says Dr. Carolyn Sullins, Evaluation Center senior research associate and the lead author of the center's recently released study on four charter schools in the Cleveland area. Still other schools do not submit annual reports at all because the Ohio State Board of Education lacks the personnel to review them.

The situation is similar in Michigan, Miron says.

Michigan and Ohio also differ from the other states in their heavy reliance on EMOs--education management organizations. Evaluation Center studies suggest that states with extensive involvement by for-profit management companies have poorer results in terms of performance and accountability. In Michigan, more than 75 percent of its charters are operated by EMOs.

"The EMO can come in and have a cookie-cutter approach--a tried-and-tested model for the school--and implement that," Miron says. "At the same time, a lot of the resources that could be going into instruction are being shaved off and put into the pockets of the EMOs."

Delaware has had EMOs operate its charter schools, but with the rigorous oversight the state has imposed, management companies are fired if they do not meet expectations, Miron says. That's virtually unheard of in Michigan.

"There's nothing wrong with private entrepreneurship in public education, but they need to be reined in by the public school boards," Miron says. "The way contracts are set up in Michigan, that often is not the case."

Charter school initiatives in Michigan and Ohio also were characterized by a highly charged political atmosphere in which the majority party pushed through charter school legislation resulting in a rash of legal challenges. Movements in Delaware and Connecticut were decidedly bipartisan.

Miron says Michigan and Ohio could learn from states like Delaware and Connecticut.

"Michigan needs to close poor performing schools," Miron says. "And by doing that, they would make room for new schools to open. We don't need to lift the cap. We need more charter schools, but we do that by closing poor performing ones."

Miron's paper concludes that Michigan's charter school law, though thought to be a strong law because it grants a high degree of autonomy to charter schools, is just the opposite.

"Michigan, in my eyes, clearly has a weak law because the schools are not performing well in terms of general academic performance, nor in terms of accountability," Miron says.

Copies of Miron's paper and the three new studies are available through the center's Web site at <www.wmich.edu/evalctr>. For interviews, contact Dr. Gary Miron at (269) 387-5895 or <gary.miron@wmich.edu>.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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