Public Schools, Charter Schools: Confused?

Guest commentary by Denise Forrest

Are you confused about what public schools and charter schools are all about? Here are some answers.


Public school academies, more commonly called charter schools, have been on the scene in Michigan for 25 years. The charter school movement offered innovative new approaches with curriculum flexibility to take risks, try new ideas, many in urban centers with high poverty.


Both public and charter schools are funded by public tax dollars via the School Aid Fund on a per-pupil basis. While both public schools and charter schools receive our tax dollars, charter schools are not required to play by the same rules.


Both employ certified teachers. Charters are governed by a group or organization. They are accountable to and independently managed by a private agency, university, community college, or individual, and have appointed boards. Their achievement goals are mandated by what is laid out in their charters. Boards are often composed of people who live outside of the district and are often owners of the schools.


Often a lottery system is used when charters exceed their building capacity. Public schools must accept all students who enroll. Public schools offer additional extracurricular activities and more comprehensive special education services. Consequently, public schools across Michigan serve a much larger group of special education students.

For public schools, a locally elected school board is held accountable for school performance.


There have been many studies comparing gains in student achievement between public schools and charter schools. While charters in Metro Detroit have improved their test scores using M-STEP, the state test, they still lag behind public schools. There are pockets of high performing charters, just like there are in public schools, but generally, charters perform the same as or worse than public schools. For-profit charter schools perform worse than non-profit charters. 75% of Public School Academies run as for-profit businesses, putting profit over students. 


In 2011, then-Governor Rick Snyder removed the limit on new charter schools and discontinued the need to file an annual report with the Michigan Department of Education on the charter school’s performance and fiscal responsibility. This has led to a lack of accountability in educational and fiscal transparency which hampers the innovation and flexibility that were the cornerstones of the charter school choice movement. Without oversight, test scores can be manipulated and financial records can be corrupted.


While charter schools do offer a choice to families, 90% of Michigan's families choose public schools over charters. All schools will benefit from additional resources as laid out in the School Finance Research Collaborative.


Twenty-five years after Michigan voters approved Proposal A, funding Michigan schools with sales taxes, Michigan ranks last among the 50 states in funding growth for public education, according to a new analysis by Michigan State University. 


It is my opinion that if we properly fund Michigan schools and provide the necessary resources to all of our Michigan public schools, we would not need to find other ways to educate our school children. Innovative teaching and learning never ceased to exist in our public schools, but equitable and sustainable funding did cease to exist in our schools. It’s time we fixed the funding problem, not exacerbate it by stretching thin our State School Aid to accommodate an uncapped charter school system.

Denise Forrest is a member of a local school board and a former educator. She is a candidate in 2020 for State Representative in Michiganʻs 44th District (Townships of Milford, Highland, Springfield, White Lake, and Waterford in part).

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