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Three little-known facts about charter schools in Michigan


 Today, on State of Opportunity, I report on a troubling fact of charter school expansion in Michigan: Some of the state's best charter schools are struggling to compete against low-performing charter schools. The reason, simply enough, is marketing. Low-performing schools can easily outspend high-performing schools on advertising and recruitment gimmicks. 

As Margaret Trimer-Hartley, CEO of the very high-performing University Prep Science + Math schools told me, "There are all kinds of ways of luring kids and families to schools. And some of them are above board and some of them are not."

It seems to me that a lot of the conversation around charter schools in Michigan focuses on whether charters as a whole are good or bad. What this debate misses is that the charter school revolution already happened in Michigan. They're here, and they're not going away. Maybe it's time to stop asking whether we should have a charter school system, and focus instead on what kind of charter school system we're going to have. 

Here, then, are three facts about the charter school system that exists today in Michigan: 

  1. Michigan has more for-profit charter schools than any other state in the country. "We're an anomaly in the nation," says Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron. He says over 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan today are operated by for-profit companies. The national rate is 35 percent. 
  2. Detroit's charter school enrollment rate is second-highest in the country. 41 percent of Detroit's students went to a charter school last year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That rate is second only to New Orleans, where the school system was completely rebuilt after Katrina. Flint and Grand Rapids also rank in the top 20 nationwide for charter school enrollment rate. These numbers are from before the state lifted its cap on the number of charter schools that can open.
  3. Large, nationally-operated charter school companies are expanding more rapidly than small, locally run non-profit charters. Gary Miron of WMU says we are increasingly moving away from what he says was the original charter school "ideal." Miron, a charter school believer who actually once helped open a charter school in Sweden told me, "I kind of resent the fact that some people are still referring to these massive, national networks of charter schools as charter schools. Because they go against the original idea, which was going to be small, innovative, locally run schools. That’s not what we have today."

?You can hear the full audio of my story on our State of Opportunity page. 

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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