Mich. University Revokes 14 School Charters

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A Michigan university that has granted more charters for independent public schools than any other entity in the state has revoked 14 of the more than 40 such charters it has granted.

Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant has been at the forefront of the charter movement in the state, granting nearly half of the total number of charters that state universities are authorized to award under state law.

The 14 charters the university's board revoked last month were awarded in 1995 to groups that either have run into difficulties in opening their proposed schools or, in a few cases, have received charters from other universities or from school districts.

Central Michigan has authorized a net total of 43 charters since Michigan passed a charter school law in late 1993.

Thirty-nine of those groups have schools up and running this year, out of a total 74 charter schools in the state, said Mamie T. Thorns, the senior associate director of Central Michigan's charter school office.

Ms. Thorns said the revocation of the charters was done to free up the limited number of charters from applicants who may be in a better position to open their proposed schools by next fall.

"Several of those whose charters were revoked were authorized in February or April of 1995," she said. "But they have not opened. They have said we cannot find a facility or we do not have enough start-up funds to start the school."

"We have people standing in line who want us to charter them," she added.

Teacher Protest

Some critics of the charter school movement in Michigan have watched warily as state universities, led by Central Michigan, have become the primary entities granting charters.

Under state law, local school districts, intermediate school districts, and community colleges also may grant charters, but many applicants have preferred to go to the state universities, which offer technical assistance.

Last year, some teachers in traditional public schools said they would refuse to accept student-teachers from Central Michigan and another state institution, Grand Valley State University in Allendale, as a way of protesting the universities' promotion of charter schools.

The teachers viewed the growth of charter schools as a threat to traditional public schools. ("Mich. Teachers Assail Universities That Grant Charters," March 13, 1996.)

Ms. Thorns, however, said that Central Michigan does not grant charters lightly. The university has a lengthy application form and a screening committee made up of faculty members and retired K-12 educators who evaluate each applicant.

The charter school office then makes recommendations to the university's board, which is appointed by Republican Gov. John Engler, a strong supporter of charter schools.

On Dec. 6, the same day the board revoked the 14 charters, it also approved charters for five schools slated to open next fall.

One of those schools, the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, will be managed by the New York City-based Edison Project. The for-profit company founded by media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle already operates one school chartered by Central Michigan, the Mid-Michigan Public School Academy in Lansing. Edison also contracts with the Mount Clemens, Mich., district to manage two schools there and has received a charter from the Flint school board to operate two schools beginning next school year.

'The Gatekeepers'

Of the charters revoked by Central Michigan, some applicant groups already had received a separate charter from another authority. The Academy of Casa Maria in Detroit, for example, received a charter from Central Michigan in 1995 but began operating under a charter from the Wayne County intermediate school district.

Another charter was revoked from the North Star Academy in Southfield, a small existing private school for students with learning disabilities. The school was seeking to convert to charter status but found that the roughly $5,500 in per-pupil funding it would receive as a charter school would not cover its expenses.

James N. Goenner, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said it is important for Central Michigan and other state universities granting charters to keep a tight system of review.

"They are the gatekeepers, and they need to do a quality job of screening and making sure charter groups have a chance to succeed," he said.

"They can't approve every group who comes to them," added Mr. Goenner, whose association lobbies on behalf of charter school operators in the state.

A study of the nationwide charter school movement issued last year by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Indianapolis, calls Michigan's universities "the main game in town" when it comes to granting charters. "Most groups opt for the university route since this means no time wasted on local politics," says "Charter Schools in Action: What Have We Learned?"

But the report expresses concern about whether universities are well-suited to continuously monitor and support K-12 charter schools.

"Since universities are not in the K-12 business, they are not well-equipped to handle these functions," the report says.

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