Charter Authorizer Accountability Mayhem

October 1, 2014

By Rachel White

Who’s In Charge?

Debate erupted over Michigan’s current charter school legal structure last May when the Detroit Free Press released a series of powerful articles focusing on the disappointing performance of Michigan’s charter schools. With titles like “Weak Michigan charter school laws enable scams, insider dealing” and “Most Michigan charter companies don’t follow financial disclosure law,” policy makers and the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) are currently working to respond to disgruntled and confused citizens who want answers. Most pressing is the question of who is ultimately accountable for student performance in charter schools. Is it the charter school authorizers, the charter management organizations hired by the authorizers, the school boards of the charter schools, or the state department of education?

MDE ostensibly has the power to hold charter authorizers accountable: Michigan law states that “if the superintendent of public instruction finds that an authorizing body is not engaging in appropriate continuing oversight […], the superintendent of public instruction may suspend the power of the authorizing body to issue new contacts to organize and operate public school academies.” Since this law was enacted, however, no Michigan charter school authorizer has been suspended. While some criticize the Legislature for not providing clear guidance as to how MDE should hold authorizers accountable, others blast MDE for simply not flexing its muscle. A simple three-letter word in the aforementioned statute – “may” – could be the central culprit in this blame game.

Creating Mayhem

Statutes can be either permissive or mandatory: a mandatory “must” typically creates an obligation to judicial discretion while a permissive “may” suggests discretion. Michigan’s current authorizer review process currently provides MDE with discretion. This enables MDE to choose whether to suspend authorizers’ powers. By simply changing one word – “may” to “must” – the Michigan Legislature could require MDE to suspend an authorizer’s power if it does not engage in proper oversight.

Learning from Minnesota

Minnesota, the birthplace of the charter movement, can be looked to as a model for charter school authorizer accountability. In 2009, Minnesota enacted a law requiring the state department of education to reapprove authorizers every five years; consequently, the department is developing an evaluation tool to assess authorizer performance. Authorizers that score low on the evaluation are given time to improve; however, they are not able to take on new schools or oversee charter expansion. If Michigan were to enact a review process similar to the one operating in Minnesota, both the MDE and charter authorizers would have greater clarity regarding charter authorizer accountability.

Preparing for a Better System

In Michigan, policy makers on both sides of the aisle have voiced their commitment to developing a “better system of checks and balances.” While a better system may be warranted, simply tweaking the current statutory language to address the emphasis on “may” ought to reduce some of this mayhem.

Future Green & Write Governance and Finance blog posts will continue to examine this topic. In the coming weeks, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute will provide his insight related to promising charter school authorizer accountability policy.