Charter Schools: The Revitalization of Public Education

By Goenner, James N. | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Charter Schools: The Revitalization of Public Education


Goenner, James N., Phi Delta Kappan


Outwardly, the establishment considers charter schools a thorn in its side, Mr. Goenner notes - but who knows? Someday this same establishment may silently thank the charter school movement for its own rebirth.

Michigan has established itself as a leading pioneer in the charter school movement now sweeping the country. Last year 43 charter schools operated in Michigan, serving approximately 5,700 students. These numbers are projected to double for the 1996-97 school year. Charter schools are responding to the needs of parents, students, and communities by infusing competition and market forces into education. By creating a more responsive system, charter schools are helping to revitalize public schooling.

A key player in this revitalization has been Central Michigan University. Established in 1892, Central Michigan University is one of the largest teacher preparation institutions in the nation. It is committed to educational excellence and school reform and is leading Michigan's charter initiative.

Legislative Battles

Michigan's charter law was established to achieve the following six goals: 1) improve the learning environment, 2) stimulate innovative teaching methods, 3) create new professional opportunities for teachers through site-based management, 4) hold schools accountable for pupil achievement, 5) provide parents and students with greater educational choices, and 6) determine whether state funds can be more effectively, efficiently, and equitably distributed.(1)

In 1993 Michigan became the ninth state to have a charter school law.(2) The Michigan Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others brought suit challenging the law, which was ruled unconstitutional in Ingham County District Court. In response, legislators quickly addressed the court ruling by enacting a second charter law (Act No. 416 of the Public Acts of 1994).(3) The original law is on appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court after the Michigan Court of Appeals narrowly upheld the lower court's ruling in the spring of 1996. The current law gives the state board of education supervision over the charter schools, and this change, along with a few other concessions, has so far been enough to keep it from being challenged.

Michigan's law allows four different entities to authorize charter schools: state public universities, Community colleges, intermediate school districts, and local school districts. However, state public universities are limited to authorizing a combined total of 85 charters. This is an important point because, of the 43 charters that operated, 33 were authorized by universities (28 of them by Central Michigan University), eight were authorized by intermediate school districts, and only two were sponsored by local school districts.(4) New legislation will increase the combined number of charters that can be issued by state universities to 100 charters in 1997,125 charters in 1998, and 150 charters in 1999.(5) However, no single university may charter more than 50% of the annual cap.

Public Response

Parental demand for more educational options has been overwhelming. On average, charter schools in Michigan receive between three and four student applications for each available seat.(6) One school, Excel Academy in Grand Rapids, received nearly 200 applications in less than three weeks.

The authorizers of charter schools are also being overwhelmed by applicants. Central Michigan University alone has received more than 150 requests for charter applications during the past year but has been legally constrained from serving them all. With the cap in place, universities will find themselves unable to meet the demand for new charters.

Critics fear that charters will prove to be the forerunners of vouchers. But they are mistaken. Charter schools are neither about creating voucher systems nor about creating a few schools for a few children. Rather, charter schools are a vehicle for infusing competition and market forces into public education, a proven method for responsive change and improvement. …

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