The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "School Choice Gets Stuck in Politics" by The Detroit News, 3/23/2000.

Original Title:
Politickin' with School Choice
by Barry McGhan

Michigan Republicans got failing grades from school choice advocates this last fall. First, Governor Engler came out against the voucher proposal being pushed by some of his closest allies. Then, a handful of House Republicans failed to back the Governor's proposal to expand the number of charter schools. Some Republicans accused Engler of playing politics with his anti-voucher stand, and he in turn accused other Republicans of playing politics with charter schools. Meanwhile, many Democrats–opposed to both vouchers and charters--can only shake their heads and smile at the disarray in the majority party.

Politicking can be obscured when it occurs across party lines. Each side claims the moral high ground for its position and denies that "politics" is their motivation. Seeing it out in the open like this--coming from different sources within the same party--makes us wonder whether the needs of children, families, and teachers are ever the true concern of politicians. However, since education is the 800-pound gorilla in the state budget, it's unlikely that changes will come without some politicking.

In this case, Governor Engler has the best slant on school choice issues–"No" to vouchers, "Yes" to more charter schools. We'll see if Republicans are able to muster a little more party discipline when the legislature revisits the charter school question again.

Meanwhile, the break in the action gives us time to look again at charter schools. For example, did you know that charters come in a variety of types, and that Michigan charter school law favors one type over others? These facts arise out of recent charter school research projects. Researchers in California (A. S. Wells and associates) found six different types of schools among the charters in that state.

First, is the "urban, ethnocentric, and grassroots charter school," started by minority groups in local communities fighting for greater independence. Second, is the "home schooling/independent study program" attracting a wide range of families, from very conservative to very liberal. Third, are "charter schools founded by charismatic educational leaders" who are "mavericks within the public system ... but who generally value the professional knowledge of educators." Fourth are "teacher-led charter schools" formed by teachers who want to focus on particular instructional programs (which can range from progressive to traditional). The fifth type is the "parent-led charter school," formed by very involved parents, who even write the policies and procedures for the schools. The last type identified is the "entrepreneur-initiated charter school," founded by entrepreneurs from outside the community who "place little value on the professional knowledge of educators."

The researchers go into considerable detail in their descriptions, and also discuss a number of other important issues, far beyond what we can cover here. They review the varying goals of the founders, the differences among families from one type to another, and many other characteristics of these charter schools. Also, the California charter law is different from Michigan's, and so we don't know whether we have any of these types here. However, we can at least understand that charter schools vary widely, and we can make some judgements about which types we might like to see spread.

Too often, those opposed to charters "tar them all with the same brush," which may be politically effective, but isn't necessarily educationally sound. I confess, I prefer the kind of charter school that springs out of a community's perceived needs for its children, rather than the kind that moves in with a canned program from outside a school district. That's why I'd like to see some public school teachers negotiate charter school contracts with their own districts. But, even the "outside" charter can have a place in areas where public school districts are too dysfunctional to improve on their own.

Michigan State University charter school researchers (Arsen, Plank, and Sykes) report that about 70% of Michigan charter schools are run by corporations that offer a particular brand of charter school experience to parents. The MSU researchers attribute this phenomenon to several factors, including the fact that Michigan's law makes little provision for charter startup costs, thus making it most feasible for corporations with a bankroll to start them. So, the local charter that could arise out of a community's own recognized needs is at a disadvantage from the get-go.

Bi-partisan support for increasing the number of charters might be found if the Governor is willing to look for ways to make their launch more feasible for interested groups in local communities--for example, Detroit--or for teachers interested in trying to break free from their school bureaucracies. If politicos can find ways to change the mix of charter schools, along with increasing their numbers, they might just meet our educational needs as well as their political ones.

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