Charter Schools: Success, Growth and Controversy

By: Liam Martin Email
By: Liam Martin Email

LANSING -- This sixth-grade classroom at Cole Academy looks like any other.

An eager hand in the classroom, while a couple of students share a joke.

But Cole is a charter school in Lansing -- grades K through 6.

"We're not just a school. We're a family," says Superintendent James Henderson.

And there are some major differences between Cole and the state's public school districts.

There are no union contracts, for one -- alll the employees are at-will -- and privatization of services, like food, is the norm instead of the exception.

Henderson is quick to point out, that means more money right in the classroom.

"Our goal here is to make sure that the majority of the money goes directly where it needs to be -- and that is in the instructional aspect of our program," Henderson says.

Mercedes Mireles and Jazmin Sanders are sixth-graders here at Cole. They both say their parents opted for Cole because of the school's reputation and small class sizes.

"I really like being here at Cole, because it's a lot smaller and you get to know a lot more people, and make more friends," says Mercedes.

Jazmin? "We have the No. 1 Lansing MEAP scores, and I just love Cole Academy."

Jazmin is right. Cole finished first in the mid-Michigan area on last year's MEAP scores, and placed eighth for the entire state.

That success has touched off a massive growth in charter schools across Michigan. With enrollment up 30 percent in just the last five years, there are now some 250 charters, serving about 115,000 students state-wide.

"It's really helpful for parents to have a number of choices, because one size doesn't fit all," says Gary Naeyaert, spokesman for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

But not everybody is so high on the charter school movement. Under state law, funding for schools in this state is per-pupil. That means every time a kid like Mercedes or Jazmin leaves her school district for a charter, the public school in her town loses money.

Still, Naeyaert says that's an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise good program.

"I think most people believe that choice increases the performance and the competition, because schools now have to earn the right to teach that child," Naeyaert says.

And there is, of course, some anger from unions -- whose members worry charter schools are free to ride rough-shod over their employees.

Yet, one thing in that debate is certain: With public funding facing a crunch, charter schools won't be going away anytime soon.


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