The Stream

Charter schools and choice

Do charter schools improve the US education landscape?

“You are receiving this letter because the school your child attends is at risk of being closed by June 30, 2017 due to academic failure for many years,” reads the first line of the letter sent to thousands of parents last month in Detroit, Michigan. Thirty-eight schools are slated to close in the US state within the next few months.

Michigan schools have suffered financially and academically for years. In an effort to improve the failing public school system, the state opened its doors to charter schools in the 1990s and became a testing ground for charter schools and school choice advocates. Charter schools across the US are funded with public money but are privately run, and have varying levels of accountability or transparency, depending on the state’s laws where they operate.

The idea was that by welcoming charter schools to open in Michigan, it would increase competition among all schools for both federal dollars and students, as well as raise the bar for education standards at the same time.

One of the biggest school choice advocates and funders in Michigan is billionaire Betsy DeVos, the new, controversial US Secretary of Education. Her family founded the Great Lakes Education Project, a well-funded lobbying arm and charter school advocacy group. DeVos has advocated to shut down the public system entirely in Detroit in favor of independent public charter schools.

Detroit currently has more students in charter schools than anywhere in the country, after the city of New Orleans in Louisiana. Eighty percent are run by profit management companies.

Critics of the school choice movement say charter schools have dried up enrollment and taken away funding from public or district schools, leading to closures and undermining the mission of giving all children equal access to education. In Michigan, they say there is a glut of schools, and not enough quality options. They are calling for greater oversight and regulation with a cap on the number of charter schools allowed. Many blame unfettered charter school growth, and the privatized, free market model used in Michigan for undermining the traditional public school system.

Supporters point to a moderate increase in test scores, and say that parents should have more choices when it comes to picking a school. They argue that charters operate with less bureaucracy than traditional public schools. An investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that out of 214 charter schools ranked in 2012 and 2013 by the state, 27 were in the top 25 per cent of all schools in Michigan. Charter advocates say the poor performance of public schools show the need for alternatives.

The reality is charter school outcomes are complicated and depend on many factors. But as Betsy DeVos begins her tenure as Secretary of Education, it’s likely her policies for U.S. public schools will advocate the changes she has championed for decades in Michigan.

In this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Gary Naeyaert @GLEP_MI 
Executive Director, The Great Lakes Education Project

Erin Einhorn @erinleinhorn
Senior Detroit correspondent, Chalkbeat

Wytrice Harris @482Forward
Parent organiser, 482 forward

Terrence Martin @DFT231
Executive Vice President, Detroit Federation of Teachers

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.