8 Things I Didn’t Know About Charter Public Schools

Sending a Child to School in Michigan?

Michigan parents can choose where their kids go to school. They can even choose from many free, public schools. When I was in grade school in rural Michigan, we could either go to the local public school or the one private school in my area. 

When my kids became school age, I learned that they have so many more options than I did! Two of the schools at the top of our list when we began the school journey were Excel and Knapp Charter Academies. 

I liked that my kids could attend diverse schools with strong academic standards if they seemed like a better fit for my kids than the closest elementary school in my neighborhood. 

Several of my friends have sent their kids to charter schools, but I’ve started to realize that not everyone understands how these schools work. There are a lot of misconceptions flying around about charter public schools that we are going to debunk.

Students at at GVSU Charter Public School

How Charter Public Schools are the Same as (and Different From) Other Public Schools

One of my best friends is a charter public school teacher, yet I didn’t understand how charter public schools really worked until recently. Even though they’ve been around for 25 years, I didn’t even hear about them until my kids became school age. It’s tough to differentiate it from other public or private school systems, especially if you’ve never attended a charter public school! 

Grand Valley State University recently gave me the 411 on how charter public schools work. 

Yes, I wondered that, too at first – What on earth does GVSU have to do with K-12 charter schooling?? 

Well, they’ve got skin in the game!

Student working on chemistry at at Charter Public School

1) GVSU Oversees 78 Charter Public Schools in Michigan

One of the first things I learned about charter schools is that they’ve added an extra layer of accountability beyond what traditional public schools have. 

Beyond the common public schools oversight from its school board and the State of Michigan, charter public schools also must have an authorizer. This organization decides whether a new public school should open to meet community needs under a performance contract called a “charter.” It also oversees and helps the schools it charters to serve kids, and determines whether it should remain open at the end of the performance contract. 

GVSU is the authorizer for 78 charter schools in Michigan, and it regularly reviews these schools for educational standards. 

“Our goal is to make sure that each school is offering a better educational option for kids, while adhering to high legal standards,” says Michael Cousins. Manager of Communications for GVSU’s Charter Schools Office. 

“When a school approaches the end of its performance contract, we look at its track record and impact on kids and the community,” he adds. 

A report is then presented to the GVSU Board of Trustees, which decide whether to renew a school’s charter or not. 

If a charter public school isn’t making the grade, it could close. 

“The level of accountability that we place on schools is very high,” says Michael. “We know that parents have high expectations for their kids’ educations, and it is our job to make sure that the schools we charter meet them.”

But GVSU isn’t the only one keeping any eye on charter schools. They still have individual school boards and are accountable to the State of Michigan. Why?

2) Charter Public Schools are Public Schools – Even if They’re Wearing Uniforms

Charter public schools are free – there is no tuition. They receive public school funding and fall under the state’s same school oversight. 

So why aren’t they just called public schools, and not charter public schools? 

Charter public schools are different. They are more flexible. They have more independence to design their classrooms to meet their community’s needs. 

My friend’s kids went to a local charter public school that required uniforms. People often associate that with private school, but some charters see the same benefits of uniforms as the private schools. And because they have this flexibility to design their school in a way that best suits their community, they can do that!

3) Charter Public Schools can Hyper Focus on Fine Arts, Montessori and More

I love how charter public schools can be innovative and offer special focuses for their students. It’s really important to me that my kids have access to good art education – whether it be through stage, music or fine art. And charter public schools can offer that! 

Grand River Preparatory High School in Kentwood focuses on getting students to-and-through college. West Michigan Academy of Arts & Academics in Spring Lake gives kids that art education. Others have a Montessori curriculum. 

You can even find balanced calendar schools! (Yes, working parents, you read that correctly – you can find a charter public school that has a more year-round schedule.)

charter public school students in music class

4) Sorry Kids, You Still have to Take M-Step and SAT

If you think going to a charter school will get you off the hook on academic standards and testing, you’re wrong. Charter schools have the same state testing standards as any other school. 

You can always view the academic performance of any charter school, and compare results with other charters and traditional public schools by visiting the MI School Data Parent Dashboard for School Transparency.

5) They Support Special Education, Too

This may have been the biggest myth I had about charter public schools. I keep hearing from my community, “But a charter school can’t provide for kids with special needs.” 

That is false! And it’s actually a state law that charter public schools must accept any student that can fill a seat at their school, and provide them with the resources they need to thrive. 

All students are welcome at a charter public school, and all students will be served,” says Michael. 

Charter schools have a passion for all children and will figure out the best way to accommodate each student. Sometimes a charter school will partner with other educational entities to make sure their students are receiving the appropriate level support. Whatever it takes.

young student exploring science at a charter public school

6) Charter Public Schools are NOT For-Profit Schools??

Okay, so I was wrong. The biggest myth I believed about charter public schools is actually that they are for-profit. Social media had me thinking that charter public schools were cash cows for administrators. 

But every charter public school in Michigan is a tuition-free, public entity with nonprofit status. Many charter schools will work with external organizations to operate efficiently, similarly to, traditional public schools who work with vendors to provide things like school lunches, books, and accounting services. However, these partnerships in no way affect the nonprofit status of any charter public school.

7) Charter Public Schools Don’t Choose Their Students – Anyone can Attend!

So a lot of the GVSU charter public schools are so popular that they have waitlists, and I think this is why people think the schools are selective. But in reality, anyone is eligible to attend a charter public school. There’s no essay test or special tuition. You just sign up like any other public school. 

However, to avoid overcrowding, charter public schools do have a limited number of seats. In high demand areas, students enter a lottery. 

My kids did this with their schools of choice application for another school in the county. Many students were interested in their district, so admins held a lottery and a set number of families could join the school.

8) About 10% of Michigan’s K-12 Population Attends a Charter School

For an educational model that’s only 25 years old, serving 10% of Michigan students is no small feat. West Michigan alone has 25 charter schools, and there are over 300 across the state. 

And while there are a variety of authorizers across the state, I think what GVSU does is really special. 

Not only are they very hands on with the schools they authorize, but they’re also really involved with charter public school students themselves. 

“We get about 5,000 students on our campus each year through art education programs and college preparation programs,” says Michael. 

He’s especially proud of their College Prep Week, where students from charter schools across the state spend a week at GVSU in the dorms, attending mock college courses.  

GVSU is giving these students the tools they need to make a decision about college. And it gives them a leg up when they set foot on campus as college students – these kids have already been there, and they know what to expect. 

My public school had no such partnerships with universities, and I think GVSU’s model is really neat. It definitely would have helped me when I was graduating high school.

If you’re researching school choices in Michigan, a charter public school may be the perfect fit for your child, especially if it’s one of the schools under GVSU’s umbrella

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Grand Rapids

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