Michigan Charter Schools Is Why Local Control Matters

The Detroit Free Press revealed a scathing report on the state of the Michigan charter school system. In a yearlong investigation, the Free Press headlines that the state does not hold charter schools accountable after spending $1 billion to support them. The report charges instances of double dipping, lack of transparency, and that on average charter schools spend $800 more per student on administration cost as compared to a traditional public school. Much of the administration cost goes to private for-profit and non-profit companies that provide some if not all administration services for the school.

This report coming out at the same time when Governor Rick Snyder signs a new $15 billion education budget. While the governor sites that the budget includes $1 billion more than the year before he took office, many school districts are feeling financial strain. The Lansing State Journal sites that 55 school districts will have deficit shortfalls with 7 being in the red.

In an article I wrote for Bridge Magazine, I explain how the policy enacted over the last several years has made funding schools in Michigan harder. Even with the new budget, many criticize it for disproportionately pushing money toward charters as opposed to traditional. It does not take a complex process to see that something is amiss in the mitten. When pressed about the issue, Governor Snyder states that there should be more transparency and accountability for all schools, not just charters.

The issue happening in Michigan brings notice to an important aspect of school reform. With changes coming by the means of curriculum, teacher pay, tenure, standards, and testing, it is time to start taking a look at the administrative side of schools. As the California Supreme Court strikes down teacher tenure, stating that it does not guarantee an equal education for every child, the same could be said about how schools are being administered in Michigan charters. This begs a solution to how schools in America should be held accountable and checked to insure that all children are afforded an equal and just education.

Even if the Free Press report is to be taken in moderation, it is obvious that the current Michigan state government cannot or will not properly regulate schools on their own. The United States has long-held the tradition of local control of the schools, but again local control has its moments when elected and appointed officials have let things slide or downright stole from the district. The solution is federalism. The levels of government protects one from the other, and although sometimes there is a holler for states' rights and local control, there should not be a push to dismantle one or the other.

Talk of reform or standardizing curriculum should not lead to the diminishment or removal of local influence. Allowing for local influence in schools provides a diverse school system meeting the needs of a diverse population. At the same time, there are modern-day skills and knowledge needed to be successful in a national and global economy. It is the combination of the two which has made America into the force it has become. It is bringing together diverse people under the shared values of freedom, equality, and the pursuit of opportunity.

Every school in America should be under control of a locally elected and community accountable school board. In the end, the school is the ownership of the community in which it serves, whether that is defined by a geographic area or simply by the parents of the children that attend the school district. Since education is deemed in this country to be a basic human right, there must be a justice system to ensure this right. By disallowing the community to democratically elect their school board, the ability for the citizens to check the activities of their schools is lost.

It does not mean that local school districts should operate in a vacuum, but it does mean that each level of government can act as a check to the other. Funding should be possible from each of the three levels to protect schools from unforeseen mistaken policy or shortfalls in budgets. Reform can start out large on the national level and funnel to the local with each school creatively evaluating and implementing for their own needs. And, reform can start from a local idea, method that works, or thought from one teacher and be shared through the state and national levels.

At times democracy can be slow and cumbersome, but when it leads to the freedom of ideas and equality for all it is never too expensive. When it comes to managing a school system, it seems like America now needs to work on being American. Democracy can be a tool to recognize the shortcomings of a nation, but it takes effort to turn it into a vehicle for equality.