The state raised the bar for organizations that oversee charter schools in Detroit. See who’s responding

The organizations charged with overseeing Michigan charter schools are increasingly seeking a national endorsement they say shows they’re effective.

This comes after years of criticism about the quality of their oversight and a 2016 law that limits their ability to open new schools in Detroit.

That law toughened state rules by requiring charter school authorizers to be accredited, or endorsed, by a national agency in order to open new schools in the city.

When the new law was enacted, there were a dozen authorizers overseeing charters in the city. But only two of them were accredited. Four now are accredited, and that number is rising.

Authorizers who’ve sought accreditation say it helps improve the quality of the work they do by focusing in on what they’re doing well and what they need to improve. As part of the process, which can take up to six months, a team of expert reviewers visits the authorizers to observe, conduct interviews, and review documents.

But more accredited authorizers also means there’s the potential for more charter schools to open in the city, which could concern critics who say Detroit has too many charters. More than half of the children who attend school in the city are enrolled in charter schools.

Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University were both accredited prior to the 2016 law. They’ve since been joined by Ferris State University and Saginaw Valley State University. Others, including the Detroit Public Schools Community District, are currently undergoing the process.

The Detroit district’s entry may seem surprising, given its shift away from the charter school business. But the flexibility to open new charters is not the reason the district — and other authorizers — have gone through the long process of achieving accreditation.

“We are going through the accreditation process to ensure that as an authorizer we continue to learn how to improve and maintain best practices,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “Despite the district’s shift away from district charters, we have an obligation to support” charter schools that remain with the district.

Becoming accredited leaves options open if the district chooses to authorize new charters.

“If the board decides to go in a different direction in the future,” Vitti said, it won’t be “in a position of saying, ‘Well, we should have done that.’”

But for now, Vitti has made it clear that the district’s main priority is the roughly 50,000 students who are educated in district-run schools.

Angie Koppang, a vice president with AdvancED, said the agency developed the accreditation system “based on interest from the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers.” AdvanceED is a leading accreditor of education institutions. Koppang said other states have expressed interest in the authorizer accreditation system it created for Michigan.

The Michigan council, made up of charter school authorizers in the state, was “seeking a model for an external measure of quality for authorizers,” Koppang said.

“The accreditation provides them the opportunity to really understand their systems and procedures and understand their capacity to improve their schools and provide appropriate oversight,” said Rob Kimball, associate vice president of charter schools at Grand Valley. Kimball also heads up the Michigan authorizer’s council.

At Grand Valley, he said, the process helped the West Michigan-based university see that it needed to be more engaged in its schools’ communities. That spurred what Kimball called a “robust community engagement support initiative.” Grand Valley is the largest authorizer in Detroit.

“We want to ensure that our schools are connected,” Kimball said.

David Lewis, who heads Saginaw Valley’s School/University Partnership Office — which oversees 18 charter schools across the state — said one of the biggest advantages of going through accreditation is the time spent in self-reflection.

At Saginaw Valley, the process helped them see the need for professional development for the authorizer staff.

“We spend a considerable time working on professional development for our schools. But our own team needs it,” Lewis said.