The majority of the Motor City's charter high schools underperform the city's traditional public schools, according to an analysis published Thursday by Detroit News.
The report found that just six of 25 Detroit charter schools had higher math or science proficiency rates on the Michigan Merit Exam than those in Detroit's traditional public schools. The analysis notes that charter schools only surpassed Detroit Public School performance in social studies.
"We were not surprised in that we have consistently believed and said that there are both excellent charter schools and low-performing charter schools as there are both excellent and low-performing public schools," Steve Wasko, a spokesman for Detroit Public Schools, told The Huffington Post.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run, have gained momentum around the country. A surge of laws passed this legislative session expanded the number of charter schools that allowed to open. According to data from the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, 1.8 million students attended 5,277 charter schools in the 2010-2011 school year -- an increase of 11.8 percent over the previous year.
Supporters laud charter schools' flexibility and the proliferation of options for parents, while critics condemn them for sucking resources out of public schools and underserving high-need populations. Beyond those objections, the overall efficacy of charter schools is in question. The most authoritative study on the issue -- out of Stanford University in 2009 -- found that only 17 percent of the charter schools studied outperform public schools and that 37 percent "deliver results that are significantly worse" than those expected of traditional public schools.
Studying charter schools in Detroit is particularly important as the city faces a massive enrollment crisis and uses charters as a key component of its "Renaissance 2012" reform plan. Gov. Rick Snyder's recently announced plan to have Detroit's lowest-performing schools answer to a special state-run authority (run by emergency manager Roy Roberts) is still thin on details, but it is known that the new structure will have the authority to charter new schools.
"I think it raises a red flag for the district as they move toward turning over traditional public schools into charter schools," said Marytza Gawlik, who taught at Detroit's Wayne State University until this summer.
And, outside the city, it matters because U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called Detroit -- with its low literacy rate, low performance and mounting debt -- a "ground zero" for education reform, signaling that if performance can increase there, it can happen anywhere.
Wasko, though, said drawing a connection between the charter school analysis and the district's reform plans would be a "flawed" attempt. He said the Renaissance 2012 plan "has quality as its middle name at every level."
"We've carried through that at every step to bring us the highest quality partners who know how to evaluate charter proposals," he added.
Wasko also noted the News analysis considers Detroit charter high schools, whereas the new charters opened as part of the Renaissance plan will not be high schools. When asked whether the district plans to expand them into high schools -- many charter schools add a new grade every year -- he said it had yet to be determined.
But state Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Detroit) said "it's completely fair to compare them."
"There ought to be a standard whether it's pre-K, K-8, high school, or after," he added. "There ought to be a standard that's established for every grade and then met."
The former emergency manager Robert Bobb planned to convert as many as 45 of Detroit's public schools into charter schools, but Roberts scaled back the plan to only eight for the next school year.
"Mr. Roberts wanted to make sure that the process slows down sufficiently so the correct decisions can be made," Wasko said. "A bunch applied and didn't make initial and other cuts."
As for the role charters will play in the new authority, "We have ways to go," Wasko said. "Where charters fit in has not been determined aside from saying both organizations are authorized to grant charters and in all likelihood will."