With many charter schools in Detroit and in the surrounding suburbs, southeast Michigan parents have no doubt heard of this education option. While charter schools have been a part of the education landscape here in Michigan for many years, there are still questions parents may have about them.
For starters, what is a charter school? Also known as public school academies, charter schools are public schools, government funded just like your local school district, meaning they’re tuition free.
An authorizer approves the opening of a new charter school. Here in Michigan, a public university, a community college, an intermediate school district and even a traditional school district can be an authorizer, explains Brian Gutman, director of public engagement for The Education Trust – Midwest, a nonpartisan education policy, research and advocacy organization.
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The authorizer then turns to an operator for the management of the school. “In Michigan, charter operators – the organization or company that runs the daily operations of the school – may include non-profit or for-profit entities,” he notes, adding that a majority of charter schools in our state are operated by for-profit organizations.
Because charter schools are public schools, parents wondering how to get in a charter school should know enrollment is open to all students (unless the school has met capacity), the Michigan Department of Education notes.
Pros and cons of charter schools
For parents who want a primer on basic pros and cons of charter schools and their offerings, here are a few things to consider when asking, “Should I send my child to a charter school?”
A big draw is that charter schools provide parents a choice. Fed up with your child’s public school district? Can’t afford private school? Charter schools give families a different route.
“Charter schools have been around for 21 years now in Michigan, and they’ve brought choice to parents that was never there before,” says Buddy Moorehouse, vice president of communications for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
Charter schools also cater to specific values and interests. While charter schools administer state mandated tests, such as M-STEP, the school may follow a curriculum that has a specific emphasis. Want a school that follows the Montessori curriculum, or has an arts education focus? Charter schools provide that option.
“Rather than trying to fit the child to the school, we can fit the school to the child,” Moorehouse says.
As far as extracurricular offerings go, the activities available vary by school. “There are some charter schools that have all the same offerings as a traditional school – football teams, marching bands, choirs and so on,” he says, adding, “in most cases, the extracurriculars they offer tend to follow the focus of the school.”
While enrollment is open to any student, there may be space limitations that could come into play. Then, students would enter a lottery. Unfortunately, “there are quite a few charter schools in the state that have waiting lists,” Moorehouse says.
Something that can also be troubling for parents – especially if opting for a school not near home – is transportation. “There isn’t busing and that’s a concern for a lot of parents,” he says – though he adds some charter schools have found various ways to alleviate that concern.
In the education world and among policymakers, charter schools have faced scrutiny. The quality, accountability and transparency of charter schools and their authorizers are hot topics studied and debated.
For example, the Education Trust-Midwest released a report on Michigan charter authorizers’ performance, arguing the need for more accountability based on its findings.
Making an informed choice
So why choose a charter school? One reason some parents pick them is because they see it as an improvement from their child’s former school in some way.
“In urban areas, in particular, surveys show parents register their children for charter schools in search of safer or higher-achieving school options,” Gutman says.
But before choosing a school for your child, it’s important to do your research into the options you’re considering. A charter school might not be the best fit for your child, or it might be a great fit. It can all depend on the individual school.
“Some charter schools are providing quality education. However, others are not,” Gutman says.
Because data vary, a great way to take a closer look is to evaluate rankings. In Detroit, there is a mix of charter and public schools making top ranks in Excellent Schools Detroit’s 2015 Detroit Schools Scorecard (the latest data currently available) – and a blend of both at the bottom of the list. Parents will find charters and other schools falling in all different areas on the Top to Bottom School Ranking list from the State of Michigan when comparing schools.
As the MDE notes, “All charter schools are different, even if they use the same curriculum.” MDE suggests parents visit the charter school they’re curious about and “ask questions about the school’s educational program, leadership (governing board and administration), faculty and policies.” See if it’s possible to get a parent-student handbook to read up on general information.
There are organizations that help parents make informed choices about the schools they’re considering for their children, including the following:
With charter schools, “it’s all just about choice and giving parents the options,” Moorehouse emphasizes.
Start your search! Learn more about what charter schools are available in southeast Michigan by browsing our roundups of Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and Washtenaw charter schools, and browsing the charter school directory that includes interest areas of each school at ChoicesInEducation.com.
This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated for 2017.