10 July 2014


Original Story:  Freep.com

State school Superintendent Mike Flanagan announced Monday he is giving notice to Michigan’s charter school authorizers that he will exercise his “statutory authority” to prevent them from granting new charters if their performance overseeing the schools does not measure up.

Flanagan said a recent Free Press special report on charter schools led him to make the decision.

“This series of news articles has prompted me to think differently about whether to suspend an authorizer’s ability to open new charter schools,” Flanagan was quoted in a news release by the Michigan Department of Education. “It’s my authority in state law, and I will be using it.

“We are getting serious about quality choices for Michigan students. This is not just about getting academic results. It’s about total transparency and accountability.”

Flanagan’s office said he would not comment beyond the MDE news release, which contained several statements from him.

An eight-day Free Press series showed that MDE has never suspended an authorizer. Flanagan had said previously that the Legislature needs to provide specific guidelines for shutting down authorizers — the universities, community colleges and school districts that authorize and oversee charter schools’ performance.

The series, “State of Charter Schools,” found that Michigan charters receive nearly $1 billion per year in taxpayer money, often with little accountability or transparency on how those dollars are spent.

The series also reported that academic performance is mixed, and charter schools on average fare no better than traditional schools in educating students in poverty. Many poor-performing charter schools are allowed to continue operating for years by their authorizers.

The Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a professional organization for the state’s charter schools, said the move by Flanagan is good — and is proof Michigan already has tough oversight laws.

“He has had this authority for a number of years,” MAPSA President Dan Quisenberry said. “This statutory responsibility is part of Michigan’s strong system of charter school oversight, so it’s ironic that this announcement comes following a week of stories about how weak our state oversight is.

“We urge the state superintendent to base his decisions on academic performance and to work on oversight of all public schools. Charter schools have always been the most accountable of all public schools. What we need now is legislation that holds all public schools to this same level of accountability.”

MDE said that Flanagan has directed its staff “to establish rigorous principles that measure the transparency, academic and financial practices of the charter schools of each authorizer. The result of these measures will determine which authorizers would lose their chartering capabilities.”

In a statement, Flanagan also said: “There are many good charter schools in our state, which operate in the best interest of the students they serve and not to the best interest of the adults who run them. The news articles over the past several weeks have heightened attention to the issues that have shrouded charter schools with suspicion and contempt among some in the education community and the public — sometimes deserved, sometimes not.

“Let’s support what works and change what doesn’t.”

More than 140,000 students attend state-funded charter schools across Michigan, and in 2013-14 the state had 296 charters operating some 370 schools. In 61% of them, charter school boards have enlisted full-service, for-profit management companies — which contend that the taxpayer money they receive to run a school is private, not subject to public disclosure.

There are more than three dozen authorizers in Michigan. The largest in number of charters overseen are Central Michigan University with 64 and Grand Valley State University with 47.

Grand Valley spokeswoman Mary Eilleen Lyon said in an e-mail to the Free Press that the university has no problem with scrutiny:

“A report released by Supt. Mike Flanagan’s office last year showed that Grand Valley’s charter schools, as a whole, outperform all other authorizers using state tests as the assessment standard. Grand Valley has always acted in the best interest of the charter school students we serve. We believe in accountability ... and that our oversight procedures should be used as a model.”

Flanagan’s announcement drew praise from critics of the current system.

“It’s high time and it’s what we should be doing and should have been doing for some time,” said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education. “I welcome that.”

But Austin, who has been pushing for a stronger charter regulations, said a loophole in the law would need to be fixed. A suspended authorizer would still be able to maintain its existing charters. And nothing in state law would prevent those charters from expanding and opening new campuses.

Austin said it’s one of many legislative fixes that are needed in the charter law “to ensure transparency and to ensure clarity.”

The Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers said it hopes to sit down soon with Flanagan to talk about the changes.

“Multiple Michigan authorizers have been recognized nationally as model authorizers,” Jared Burkhart said in a statement. “In fact, many of the recommendations mentioned by Superintendent Flanagan are already in state law or are based on best practices already in place in Michigan.”

Flanagan received a series of letters during the Free Press series from Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Richmond, who also sent letters to the governor’s office, urged that Michigan toughen its standards — especially in accountability and financial transparency.

“Our organization believes in accountability in education — for charter schools, traditional public schools, authorizers and school boards,” Richmond said. “No one should get a free pass. We all need to earn and maintain the public’s trust. A good accountability system for authorizers should have clear standards and a fair, transparent process.”

Flanagan said tougher standards are in authorizers’ best interests, too.

“All authorizers, especially the boards of trustees of the colleges and universities that authorize most of the charter schools, must pay better and closer attention to how their schools are operated,” Flanagan said. “The integrity of their institutions is at stake here, too.”

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