Charter Schools: The Michigan Experience and the Limits on the Federal Role
McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University
The Issue:Charter schools are designed to improve education performance by giving parents a choice and allowing markets to “work.” Charter schools offer an alternative to traditional public schools, and allow parents to “vote with their feet” by choosing schools that they think are best for their children. Donald Trump vowed to expand "school choice" by promoting charter schools—which are publicly funded but independently run—as well as through vouchers that give funds for students to attend private schools.
Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education has been an avid supporter of charters in Michigan and played an influential role, spending millions of her own money to help steer charter school legislation in the state.
- Charter school policies vary widely across states. Charters have greater flexibility—freed from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools—but are held to a performance contract (charter) that specifies results. Authorizers, the entities in charge of regulating charters in a state, play a critical role. They determine who may open a charter school, oversee schools once they are up and running and have the power to renew or revoke a charter depending on their performance. States decide who can be an authorizer (which varies from local school boards, colleges, non-profits, to a state-level entity depending on the state), how many schools they can authorize, and what penalties authorizers face if they fail to close poorly performing charters.
- Relative to other states, Michigan charters are less tightly regulated, something DeVos has advocated. Michigan has 45 authorizers, while some states have only one. Lackluster schools in danger of losing their charter can “shop” for a different authorizer who will allow them to remain open; unsurprisingly, the state shuts down fewer charters than other states on average. (See the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and also see here for an example of authorizer shopping.)
- Some Michigan charter students fare better than they would in traditional public schools. One study found that 35 % of Michigan charter schools did better in reading and 42% did better in math than their counterparts in the same school district. But quality varies more across charters than traditional schools. More than half of Michigan’s charters did no better in reading or math than traditional schools, and some did significantly worse. Nearly half of Michigan charters are in Detroit, where public schools have an abysmal performance record, setting a low bar for the comparisons made in the study.
- Whether having to compete with charters has improved or hurt traditional public schools in Michigan is much more difficult to answer. Michigan students from both traditional and charter schools have been lagging behind the rest of the country. The presence of charters remains relatively small in the state (9% of public school students attend charters) but is significant in Detroit and Flint.
- Differences in state policies towards charter schools make cross-state comparisons difficult. Linking charter success to a particular state policy requires ruling out other state characteristics. While some of Massachusetts' charters have shown exceptional results, for instance, it is unclear to what extent that is due to the fact that the state allows only one authorizer, or that only non-profit companies run charters (most Michigan charter schools are run by for-profit companies), as opposed to the specific “No Excuses” model used by the schools, or the quality of teachers available in Massachusetts.
- As U.S. education secretary, DeVos cannot directly control these aspects of state policy. The federal government could try to incentivize a pro-charter environment at the state level through grants (similar in structure to the Obama administration's Race to the Top, for instance). It also could do something more prescriptive, such as attaching strings to federal education funding for low-income and special needs students. But there may be limits to how far a Republican administration and Congress are willing to push for more interventionist federal education policy, even relating to a popular conservative issue such as school choice; the 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is widely viewed as a triumph of states’ rights and a direct response to the increased federal role during the Obama Administration.
What this Means:
There is tremendous variety in how states regulate charter schools and how individual charter schools operate within any policy environment. Charter effectiveness varies widely within states and across states. In Michigan, where DeVos has been a central player in promoting charter schools, there has been mixed evidence of success. But the federal government plays a limited role in how charters are regulated and operate. As secretary of education, DeVos might try to persuade Congress to incentivize pro-charter and other school choice programs, but whether —and how —such policies are implemented is likely to remain firmly in state hands.