by Dr. Malverne C. Winborne, Published July 14, 2014
Eastern Michigan University has been authorizing charter schools since the state of Michigan first passed laws allowing the practice in the early 1990s.
The University is deeply experienced in overseeing charter schools, and has a clear goal in doing so. We are committed to supporting public education efforts in southeast Michigan, where the need for high performing schools is critical, especially in the most vulnerable, disenfranchised communities.
Given our history and mission, we welcome the dialogue about charter school standards raised by the recent series of stories in The Detroit Free Press and in subsequent discussions.
We also agree that authorizers should close schools that continuously fail to achieve academic goals set forth by the Michigan Department of Education. We are also aware that the state superintendent of public instruction has the power to restrict any nonperforming authorizers from issuing new charters, be they institutions of higher education, intermediate school districts or local school districts.
This awareness has been a key part of our continuous improvement model for providing oversight to our charter schools since the EMU Charter Schools Office (CSO) was established in 1995.
Examples of Eastern’s strong oversight practices include:
Board selection process: The EMU CSO adheres to a strict policy regarding selection and professional development of board members. The application process includes an extensive background inquiry, including a state police check.
The CSO director and the associate director interview potential board members, and our robust conflict-of-interest policy ensures that no employee of a management company under contract with the school may sit on the school’s board.
Appointments are subject to the approval of EMU Board of Regents, and potential board members must attend two board meetings before being sworn in before serving terms of one to three years. EMU personnel attend all board meetings, and board appointees must attend orientation and training sessions.
Oversight of management companies: The CSO reviews all agreements between a school and a potential management company prior to execution. This review includes legal and financial assessments of the management company. Some schools seek limited help from management companies in areas such as human resources support, while others seek full support to provide the school’s educational services under the board’s direction.
Charter schools report to Provost: At Eastern, the CSO reports directly to EMU’s Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, with monthly meetings between the Provost and CSO director to address a variety of authorizing issues. The Office works closely with the EMU Board of Regents on major decisions regarding charter schools.
Ensuring accountability: Eastern conductsan annual assessment of each of its schools, addressing areas such as academics, regulatory compliance, and financial health. The results are shared with schools’ board of directors and building leaders at an annual meeting, and are available to the public. We also conduct yearly parent surveys, which reveal strong satisfaction with our schools and provide key suggestions for improving their operations. These are shared with stakeholders at each school.
Outside endorsements: A variety of studies have underscored the performance of Eastern’s schools:
• In 2013, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) thoroughly examined Eastern’s CSO operation. The results yielded no areas of significant concern in Eastern’s authorization practices. Another MDE study concluded schools chartered by the 11 largest authorizers in Michigan were outperforming their traditional public school peers.
• The Mackinac Center for Public Policy published a study showing a strong correlation between MEAP results and household income. The study has particular relevance for two schools cited in the recent Free Press series: Hope Academy, whose “Top to Bottom” ranking went from the 1st percentile to the 70th when compared to other students from the same low socio-economic strata, , and Commonwealth Academy, whose ranking went from 3rd percentile to the 20th using this comparison.
• Eastern’s CSO is also conducting an on-going longitudinal study, using data from Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Scantron Performance Series assessments. It shows that students enrolled in Eastern’s chartered schools for three years or more are outperforming their peers who are new to these schools.
It’s important to note that Eastern’s authorizing efforts focus on students from communities with the highest needs in southeast Michigan, including Detroit, Flint, Pontiac and Inkster. This reflects our mission to serve students from all communities.
In fact, of the 11 largest authorizers mentioned in a recent study commissioned by the Michigan Department of Education, EMU charter schools had the second highest percentage of students from economically disadvantaged households. Seventy-nine percent of EMU students come from these “at risk” households compared to 47 percent statewide.
All this is not to say we can’t do better. We are committed to continuous improvement in our schools’ performance and in our authorizing practices. Thus, we welcome a constructive dialogue with stakeholders regarding how we can all work together to truly meet the educational needs of all Michigan children, especially our most vulnerable students – the disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged.
Dr. Malverne C. Winborne is the director of Eastern Michigan University's Charter Schools Office.