Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
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Ferris State University

Authorizer Profile: Selected Characteristics (as of 2005–06 school year)

First year of operation Number of staff Total number of schools Number of students Total number of school closures
1998 6 16 6,863 1

Michigan State Charter Law: / mileg.aspx?page=getobject& objectname=mcl-380501 &queryid=18059774 &highlight=public%20AND%20school%20AND%20academy

In Michigan, local districts, intermediate school districts,* community colleges, and state universities are all eligible to authorize charter schools. But only state universities can authorize schools anywhere in the state. The others only can authorize schools in their own geographic area. State universities have been the most active authorizers in Michigan, and among these, Ferris State University (FSU) has been one of the most active and effective authorizers.

Teacher unions are very powerful in Michigan, a historically pro-labor state, and typically oppose charter schools. This powerful opposition has created anti-charter sentiment among many school boards and in many communities, where charter schools are seen as a threat to district schools. Statewide authorizers, such as FSU, are typically more willing to open charter schools than local districts, irrespective of politics.

FSU has an enormous stake in the success of its charter schools. As a state university with mostly in-state students, its own success depends greatly upon the academic and personal growth of Michigan's K–12 students. The university's efforts are also very visible and answer to several types of constituents—the governor, investors, alumni, and the academic community. The university's interest also is tied to its own academic reputation and financial security.

FSU's charter schools office seeks to improve education options for students in urban and rural communities throughout Michigan. They meet this goal by authorizing high-quality charter schools across the state that offer a quality education option where the traditional schools have failed.

FSU's charter office is accountable ultimately to the university's board of trustees, which has the final say on all decisions about charter approval, renewal, and closure. Current board members are primarily pro-charter and generally have acted based upon the recommendations of the FSU charter office's staff. The board does not set policy or guide the office's mission, but rather ensures that no charter school poses a serious risk to its own students' safety or to the university's reputation as a high-quality authorizer. Policies and mission are left to the office staff to determine.

Staff members report that their level of resources is sufficient. The office receives all of its funding from a 3 percent fee assessed from each charter school, but the office’s facility is subsidized by the university. FSU is able to return almost a full 1 percent of its funding to the schools in the form of incentives, grants, technology (such as software), and cash awards. Michigan has high perpupil funding for charters, which ensures that authorizers have better than ordinary financial resources from their withholding of a percentage of these funds. FSU currently requires no sources of funding outside of the 3-percent fee.

FSU collaborates with several other university authorizers in Michigan. For example, FSU has partnered with Central Michigan University to track student performance data and develop a compliance software program that it likely could not have developed on its own. The combined effort also allowed both organizations greater influence with the Michigan Department of Education in regard to gaining access to student scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) statewide tests. These authorizers also share best practices with each other.

FSU also depends on the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the National Charter Schools Institute (based in Michigan), and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers for perspectives about the areas in which FSU is excelling or is in need of improvement and for resources that FSU has used to improve its authorizing practices.

FSU is not engaged in active recruitment, but has found most of its charter applicants as a result of FSU's visibility within statewide organizations that support charter schools. FSU has a reputation among charter operators and authorizers as being "tough but fair," in the words of FSU's charter office's former director Jimmie Rodgers, meaning that it holds its schools to stringent standards but provides them the best support they can for meeting those standards. FSU's reputation and visibility in the state have meant that FSU has not had to do much recruitment to find charter applicants.

Currently, however, a legislative cap22 on charter schools in Michigan hinders FSU's ongoing authorizing abilities. Public universities in Michigan are allowed to authorize a total of 150 charter schools, a number that was reached several years ago. FSU must work in collaboration with the other university authorizers to decide which authorizer will oversee any new charters that come available. While there are additional charters available for two special types of charter schools that are exempt from the cap—Strict Discipline Academies and Urban High School Academies—FSU has been able to find only one talented applicant for these kinds of charters. Because FSU is not willing to lower its quality standards, so far it has been able to move forward with only one charter school under these exempt programs since the exemptions were established in 1999.

For 16 schools spread out across the state, FSU has a five-person office staff and a fourperson field staff. The office staff relies heavily upon technology to make sophisticated ongoing monitoring possible without significant staff time. Pairing oversight and assessment technology with field representatives has allowed the staff to accomplish office administrative duties while providing more face time in the schools and at board meetings.

For schools that adequately meet expectations, FSU provides ongoing support to ensure each school's continued success. FSU collects a lot of data on compliance and student performance and has the capability of analyzing it for a variety of purposes. Staff members can track student performance to certain aspects of schools' operations, which allows them to get a better sense of which school characteristics contribute most to student learning and which detract from performance. This information helps the staff better advise their boards, target particular areas of assistance to their schools, and often informs their decisions at renewal time as well.

FSU requires schools to track scores from state and national tests. FSU tracks Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) scores online via the state's department of education Web site, requiring no reporting from the schools. Results from other tests can be submitted automatically if the school uses the Scantron system. FSU reviews monthly check registries from each school and requires a quarterly financial statement. Schools must annually submit a budget and conduct an audit. At 36 months, they must submit a statement regarding their fund equity. FSU also requires evidence of compliance with all FSU requirements as well as state and federal laws and regulations. Financial and compliance information is submitted through FSU's online compliance monitoring system.

FSU's four field representatives work throughout the state and are required to conduct six site visits to each of their schools per year. They also are required to attend at least six board meetings per year; many attend several more. Their visits result in written reports that are submitted to the FSU authorizing staff, with reports including information on school climate, observations from classroom visits, degree of parental involvement, facility conditions, and planned future focus. The authorizing staff also visits informally, both announced and unannounced. Informal visits provide staff with useful information about the school and provide school staff an opportunity to express any concerns, but are not typically captured in a formal report. Schools see staff members at least 12 times per year, on average, at site visits, at off-site training sessions, and at an annual dinner for all charter school employees.

FSU staff persistently ask themselves if they are near "The Line," referring to the line between adequate oversight and infringing upon schools' autonomy; between assisting schools and running their day-to-day operations; and between providing incentives for performance and overcommitting their limited resources.

Signs of Success: Ferris State University
  • In the 2004–05 academic year, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) showed FSU-authorized charter schools gaining on the state proficiency averages. In particular, the majority of FSU-authorized schools moved students from Level 4, the lowest of the MEAP performance levels, to Level 3, the next higher level of scoring.

  • In the 2004–05 school year, 54 percent of FSU-authorized charter schools made greater gains on state MEAP tests in reading and math in comparison to the local school district in which each charter school is located.

  • In the 2004–05 school year, one FSU-authorized school scored 100 percent proficient on the science MEAP test. Three FSU-authorized schools had 75 percent or more students scoring proficient in math, science, or reading.

* In Michigan, local school districts are grouped into intermediate school districts, which are regional services agencies that provide various student and administrative services to their member districts.

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Last Modified: 05/26/2009