As MI schooling landscape expands, ex state Super urges quality


The charter school movement continues to gain momentum in Michigan. Last month, the state started lifting the cap on the number of charters allowed to operate. The new law has intensified an already vigorous discussion of how to improve education in both chartered and traditional schools.

WKAR's Mark Bashore spoke with former Michigan Schools Superintendant Tom Watkins about this transformation. He says it's important to remove politicized disputes from the process.

TOM WATKINS: What we need to do is stop the ideological debate that's coming both from the political left and right. The only debate we should be having right now is on quality making sure that all of our children get the education they need and deserve in order to function in a hyper-competitive, disruptive, transformational global economy.

MARK BASHORE: This ideological debate you refer to you're referring to what specifically? MEA recall efforts or what?

WATKINS: Well certainly having recalls again, the legislature is putting forth solutions in one of the areas. But on the right, I also see that we're not looking at data. That what we're saying is that is if you just put the word charter' in front of schools' that it makes it automatically good. We need to be looking at specific data that's focused on the quality issues.

BASHORE: In the wake of the cap being lifted, there is concern that too many weak charter schools could be given the green light to open their doors here in Michigan, and I brought this up with Dan Quisenberry. His organization MAPSA, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies authorizes charter schools in the state. He maintains that standards are already a lot stricter than a lot of doubters would have us believe. Here's what he said:

DAN QUISENBERRY: Are we confident that authorizers are using the mechanisms they have in place to review people? Absolutely. There is only a one-in-fifty chance you're going to get a charter when you apply for one and that'll continue.

BASHORE: He goes on to say that the ratio will likely shrink more, to one in 60 or one in 80 or something like that. Does that reassure you to any extent?

WATKINS: Well Dan Quisenberry is a good and honorable man. Clearly, with a cap that's been on the number of chartered schools that could be authorized for nearly two decades, there's a pent-up demand. Parents want options and all of our children deserve quality.

Chartered schools to date mirror a lot of our traditional public schools. You can certainly point out some exceptional chartered schools around this state and around this nation. And we can point out some exceptional traditional schools. But we also know that there are some schools that are operating that none of us would want to send our children to. That is a crime in this state and in this day and age. We need to make sure that those schools that are not performing, be they traditional or charters, either get better or get shut down.

We need to get the politics out of the way to make sure that we're really giving the opportunity a life opportunity to our children to be successful.

BASHORE: Proponents say charter schools are an especially attractive option in communities where the public schools are struggling or failing. Over time, do you think lifting the cap will have an especially beneficial effect in challenged districts?

WATKINS: Well what we have is for far too long we've had schools that have operated like the Energizer Bunny they just keep on going and going whether they're providing an education, or a quality education, to our children (or not.) So providing a quality option to parents in a community is something that I do believe that parents and that children deserve. What we need to make sure as adults particularly adults within the system is that there are quality options at the front end and that they remain quality throughout.

BASHORE: Some argue that charter schools will only take more resources away from already cash-strapped public schools and that there's nowhere left to cut if that happens. What do you make of that?

WATKINS: Look, the dollars follow the students and one of the things that I find very troubling is we lose, every day, hundreds if not thousands of children to the streets through dropping out. I wish I heard the same whining when it came to the drop out problem as I do, to the few kids that may be clamoring over to a chartered school.

Too much of the debate is around power, control, politics and adults. And not enough of the debate is around teaching, learning and children. When we put the focus on teaching, learning and children, good things will happen.

BASHORE: So far, only a few charter school teachers in Detroit have chosen to unionize. Assuming the number of charters grows, do you expect the number of organized faculties to grow?

WATKINS: Well I think the issue of labor is one that is going to continue to evolve. When I started the forerunner of the first chartered school the University Public School at Wayne State I had the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers come and see me. And he told me I had to make this a DFT school. Well, as I told him at the time, that's not my responsibility as management. If they decide or if people decide to organize them, then that is certainly their responsibility and their option. So I think that there may be some additional organizing.

I would encourage our unions to really trump everyone and to have the great teachers that are members of the MEA and the Michigan Federation of Teachers to create their own school. Let's call it Teacher as Private Practitioner.' They could create a school where the teachers have the control and they could hire an administrator to manage the school operation. That would be a great innovation in the state.

BASHORE: Some charter school purists might see more organized faculties as starting to undo a beneficial feature of charter schools. What do you think?

WATKINS: Look, the true statue of liberty of this great country of ours are our public schools traditional or charters. And our great teachers are truly the torch lighting the way for us all. Teachers are not the problem. They're part of the solution. We need to engage teachers in the process, whether we do that through a unionized process or whether we engage and involve them in decision-making in a non-unionized process. Either way, we need to engage teachers in meaningful ways if we want to drive quality into our schools.