Editorial: detroitnews.com, September 3, 2012

Editorial: New charter schools provide choice
With the cap on charters lifted, families in Michigan have a fresh array of innovative schools.

Families throughout the state will have 31 new school choices this fall. The charter schools are opening following the passage of a law late last year that gradually lifts the cap on these alternative public schools. Michigan charter school authorizers carefully chose the schools and are confident they will offer students new and better options. It's encouraging to see these schools emerge, and the quality of charters will likely continue to rise in coming years.

Charter schools are not a magic bullet to success, and detractors like to point out how many charters don't boast test scores all that higher than their traditional public school counterparts. But research shows that plenty of charters do outperform other public schools, especially when children stay in the charter for several years. And parents could have a plethora of reasons for choosing one school over another — from extracurricular programs to safety concerns.

What's important is giving families the choice. Too many children in Michigan haven't had options if they were stuck in a poor-performing school. Now that's changing.

Some feared that allowing a greater number of charter schools would flood the market with too many schools. Those fears should be quelled. University authorizers, which are behind most of the charter schools in Michigan, could have opened many more schools this year than they did.

Under the law, the number of university-authorized schools could have risen to 300 — up from the 150 previously allowed. Instead, universities will start only 20 schools.

The total number of charter schools this fall is 276, with 100 of those authorized by public school districts; the state doesn't limit the number of charters districts can open. That's up from 255 in 2011. Around 10 schools closed last year, mostly for academic or governance problems.

Authorizers have closed at least 55 charter schools since they came on the scene in the mid-1990s, which is never done with even the worst public schools.

Central Michigan University's Center for Charter Schools is the state's largest authorizer, and it is taking on only five new schools. It received more than 40 applications for new schools, which was slightly higher than in past years. A spokesman for the center says the focus is on quality, not quantity.

And starting next year, university authorizers expect nationally recognized charter school companies like KIPP and Rocketship Education to take a more active look at opening schools in Michigan. They avoided the state before since the tight cap would have prevented them from opening small clusters of schools as they like to do.

Buddy Moorehouse, spokesman for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, is pleased with the caliber of the new schools. Ten schools are opening in Detroit, and others will open in cities as diverse as Kalamazoo, Pontiac, Grand Rapids and Zeeland.

One high school will partner with the Detroit Medical Center; an elementary school in Farmington Hills will highlight Chinese and Spanish language immersion programs; in the small town of St. Helen, families will once again have an elementary school; and one school in Saginaw will serve incarcerated students. Escuela Avancemos in southwest Detroit will be a resource for the Hispanic community, and it is also the first school in Michigan to work with the national educational organization Expeditionary Learning.

Public school districts are taking note of the increased competition. Grand Rapids Public Schools is aware of the number of students it has lost to charter schools and has launched a city-wide campaign called "We are GR," showcasing what the district has to offer. The same is true in Detroit, with Detroit Public Schools' aggressive "I'm In" initiative. Around 35 percent of children in the city attend charters.

Both of these large urban districts have struggled academically for years, and there's no question the addition of charters has spurred them to improve.

This fall, and in coming years, Michigan families will reap the rewards of more school choice.

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