Gov. John Engler is likely to soon renew a push to raise the limit on the number of charter schools that can be authorized by Michigan universities. This is in spite of already having been rebuffed by the Legislature, and in spite of recent studies, both in Michigan and elsewhere in the nation, indicating that charter schools are not the success many had hoped for.

Charter school advocates argued that there would be an increase in innovative and experimental programing if charter schools were allowed freedom from some of the restrictions and regulations allegedly hampering public schools. Certainly, some charter schools have served students well. But studies show there is not much innovation occurring, there are failures and, overall, charter schools are not doing any better than the traditional public schools.

More important, there is no accountability to the public because no effective oversight exists. There is confusion over who is responsible for oversight — the chartering agency (universities, local school boards and intermediate school boards), the school’s own board of trustees or the State Board of Education.

Charter schools are required to comply with the same laws applicable to traditional public schools. They may not discriminate in admissions or employment; their records must be available for public inspection; and the meetings of their governing bodies must be open to the public. They must also respect constitutional principles, including the requirement that public schools refrain from promoting religion and proselytizing students.

Charter schools that do not adhere to these laws are operating in effect as private schools, while being supported by taxpayer funds. Under these conditions, the charter school law is a device by which tax dollars are being used to fund private schools and religious education.

The National Heritage Academy, a for-profit company operating charter schools in Michigan and elsewhere, is a perfect example of how a lack of oversight has allowed a public charter school, using tax dollars, to operate as a religious school. In fact, some groups see charter schools as a way to get around constitutional mandates.

In reference to a National Heritage Academy charter school, the Michigan Family Forum, a conservative Christian organization, acknowledged in its newsletter that “Michigan parents who want the best education for their kids, but don’t want or can’t afford a private Christian school, now have another choice in Michigan.”

The Vanguard Academy in Grand Rapids, operated by the National Heritage Academy, stated in its charter application that it intended to teach the biblical creation story as a scientific theory. It is being sued for promoting religious activities, such as distributing religious materials on school grounds during school hours and allowing prayer meetings during school hours within school facilities. Additionally, teachers were required to attend an in-service program that included religious symbols, prayers, religious presentations and directions to incorporate the ideas from this “moral focus” retreat into the classroom curriculum.

These church-state constitutional violations are one direct result of the lack of public accountability. Charter schools are also supposed to be accountable to the public for how tax dollars are spent. But management companies, like National Heritage Academy, do not have to open their finances to the public, do not adhere to the Open Meetings Act and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act in the same way as traditional public schools.

There is no question that charter schools are here to stay. But the Legislature should not increase the number of charter schools without ensuring that there is sufficient oversight of those charter schools already operating. The governor should be pushing for a good oversight bill, not for more charter schools.

By Wendy Wagenheim, The Detroit News

Wendy Wagenheim is the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.