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Michigan is no stranger to the effects of competition. The auto industry was forced to adjust to an onslaught of foreign competition in the 70s and 80s. Now, Michigan's public schools face their own competition in the form of public charter schools. Since 1993, when Michigan became one of the first states in the nation to enact charter legislation, the number of charter schools has grown exponentially in the state. Today Michigan has 230 charter schools that serve nearly 100,000 students, or more than 5 percent of the student population.
Some of the state's charter schools are excellent and have provided more educational choices for Michigan families. But charter schooling is controversial in Michigan. Opponents are critical of the dominant role that for-profit educational management organizations (EMOs) play in Michigan's charter schools. EMOs, some of which have been plagued by allegations of corruption and profiteering, run nearly 75 percent of charter schools in Michigan. Nationally, only one in four charter schools is run by an EMO.
Established education interests have decried the fact that the majority of the state's charter schools have been authorized by the state's public universities because the universities have been willing to authorize large numbers of charter schools that compete directly with traditional public schools. Local and regional school boards, in contrast, have been hesitant to authorize charter schools that would compete with the boards' own schools. A proposal to create 15 new charter schools in Detroit in 2003 drew protests from more than 3,000 public school teachers who skipped work to march on the state capital.
Some charter schools have been hit with charges of teaching religion at taxpayer expense, and many charter schools suffer from poor student performance. Michigan's charter schools perform only marginally better than the state's urban school districts—and well below statewide averages.
Despite that, demand for charter schools from parents seeking educational alternatives for their children remains high and proponents would like to increase the number of charter schools available. But in 1999, university-authorized charter schools reached their statutory cap of 150. Since then, proponents have lobbied the legislature to allow more university-authorized charter schools, but have been unsuccessful in their efforts. This has constrained the overall growth of charter schools in Michigan.
It is unlikely that there will be any successful move to increase the number of charter schools that universities can authorize until Michigan's existing charter schools deliver better student performance, authorizers can ensure adequate oversight, and EMOs are held publicly accountable.
Michigan's charter school sector has tremendous potential, but achieving that potential will require significant maintenance.
This report examines both the achievements and shortfalls of Michigan's experiment in charter schooling. It reviews Michigan's charter school legislation and the evolution of charter schools in the state. It describes the state's charter school sector today and evaluates the performance of the state's 230 schools. It explores the problems of quality and other challenges facing Michigan's charter schools, and it offers recommendations for improvement.