It also mirrors findings in a Free Press series — “State of Charter Schools,” published in June 2014 — that found Michigan spends $1 billion on charters, often with little accountability, transparency or oversight.
The Michigan Department of Education has received the multiyear federal grant six times altogether — and twice in the last decade: $23 million in 2007 and $44 million in 2010. But the criteria this year were more focused on oversight.
Three outside experts reviewed applications, awarding points in each of 11 criteria established by the federal agency. The MDE application was awarded just 17 of 45 possible points for oversight of public chartering agencies, and 21 out of 45 points for high-quality authorizing and monitoring.
“There are no uniform and high expectations of authorizers,” one reviewer said.
Reviewers also were concerned that the only oversight initiatives are voluntary, with one saying. “There is no guarantee that those who need it the most will be participants.”
“I don’t think this is a Department of Education problem. This is a policy maker’s problem,” Glazer said.
“We’re doing things that are hopefully leading to better outcomes,” he said.
Burkhart said Michigan’s law also clearly gives the state superintendent the ability to suspend an authorizer that isn’t providing proper oversight.
That provision of the charter law wasn’t tested until last year, however — after the Free Press series was published. MDE put 11 authorizers on notice that they were at risk of suspension; seven were later removed from the list and four remain on it.
Burkhart’s organization has pushed for a voluntary accreditation system — one it wants to have become part of state law. AdvancED, an agency that accredits K-12 schools and districts nationwide, conducts the reviews. So far, Grand Valley State University has gone through the process and received accreditation. Central Michigan is currently undergoing it. The two universities are the largest authorizers of charters in Michigan.
The reviews looks at criteria such as whether an authorizer is ensuring its schools are audited annually by a certified public accountant, whether it is ensuring schools are posting transparency documents, and whether it’s ensuring schools that perform in the bottom 5% academically for multiple years are either being closed or restructured.
“My vision is that all authorizers would be able to have to prove that they are somehow fit to be part of the profession of authorizing,” Burkhart said.
The federal grant allows the state to disseminate small grants for planning and implementation of new charters. They start at $100,000 for initial planning and can increase if a school receives a charter, said Tammy Hatfield, manager of the public school academies unit at MDE. Michigan charters are referred to as public school academies in state law.
Not all of those schools end up opening, a fact that was criticized in a report released this week by the Wisconsin-based progressive group Center for Media and Democracy. The report highlighted 25 charter school grants issued in 2011 and 2012 in Michigan for schools that never opened.
“These ‘ghost schools’ exist only on paper,” the group said.
But Hatfield said that’s part of the process: A large part of the planning grants, for instance, is exploring the idea of opening a charter and determining whether it’s feasible. Some don’t open because they can’t find an authorizer. And in some cases, the developers decide on their own not to pursue the charter.
Those grants can be crucial for some. And without a new round of funding, “they’ll have to look toward other sources,” Hatfield said.
Burkhart said it will mean authorizers will have to step up by providing more assistance to those trying to start charters.
Low state scores
Michigan’s charter law allows school districts, community colleges and universities to authorize charter schools, but the MDE has limited oversight of them. Hatfield said a more detailed analysis of the review comments will be done to look at how other states that received or lost out in the grant competition were rated.
The changes in the criteria clearly had an impact.
“This year’s selection criteria focused on supporting the creation of high-quality charter schools, strengthening public accountability and oversight of authorized public chartering agencies, and supporting and improving academic outcomes for educationally disadvantaged students,” said Dorie Nolt, press secretary for the federal education department.
The reviewers weren’t just critical of the lack of authorizer oversight. They also scored the state low for the academic performance of charters, awarding 15 out of 30 points in that area. One of the reviewers said the percentage of charters ranked in the bottom 5% of schools in the state “is unreasonably high.” Another questioned why, after two decades of charters, “student outcomes are still just ‘comparable’ to traditional public schools.”
The state also was scored low in identifying what’s working in charters and making that information available to schools statewide.
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, firstname.lastname@example.org or @LoriAHiggins.