Michigan currently has the highest number of for-profit charter schools in the country, and the metro Detroit area, which includes Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, holds 59 percent of all charter schools in the state of Michigan. Today, nearly half (47 percent) of children in the Detroit school district attend charter schools.
While the debate over charter schools’ efficacy remains as fiery as ever in Michigan and beyond (the state hosts unyielding defenders of school choice, like former Michigan Governor John Engler and former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos), Michigan and more specifically Detroit are facing alarming rates of teacher turnover, leading some to push for a reexamination of the state’s education policies.
“We have a looming teacher crisis right now and it’s not only charter schools, but it’s worse in charter schools,” Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University, said.
Michigan has one of the highest rates of teacher turnover in the country. In the 2018-2019 school year, over 1 in 6 teachers — approximately 16.6 percent — switched to another school or left teaching altogether, higher than the national average of 13.8 percent. In the 2018-2019 school year, 88 percent of total public school teachers in Michigan remained at their schools, but only 76 percent of charter school teachers stayed for another year. According to the Learning Policy Institute, 8 percent of teachers in the U.S. leave the profession each year, with less than a third of teacher attrition rates being caused by retirement.
Detroit charter schools saw the most impact of turnover in 2017-2018, with 22 out of the 25 Detroit charter schools having issues with teacher shortage.
Not only are teachers leaving the profession midway through their careers, but overall enrollment in teacher training schools has decreased. Michigan has seen a 70 percent decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs between 2008-2009 and 2016-2017. More teachers leaving the classroom and fewer teachers entering the workforce has created the perfect catalyst for an impending teacher shortage.
To understand why, we look back at the complex but surprisingly short history of charter schools in the U.S. The first charter school in the U.S. opened in Minnesota in 1992, and the idea of for-profit charter schools owned by independent organizations quickly spread across the country.
Independently-run charter schools were created with the intention of providing more flexibility and specificity in education, but this flexibility does not necessarily guarantee longevity or stability for K-12 teachers and students. For some, seeing their child attend a school in which their race is represented can be reason enough to choose a charter school over a public school.
Though proposed as a separate institution to decrease education inequality across class, race and ethnicity, charter schools are among the most segregated institutions in the country, according to recent reports. While Michigan’s state average of minority students is 34 percent, its charter schools are made up of 67 percent minority students.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, the laws addressing where charter schools can be opened vary by state, but many face geographic restrictions that cause charter schools to be disproportionately located in poor and minority communities—meaning they are also more likely to be affected by high rates of teacher turnover.
Despite their high attendance rates, charter schools have been heavily criticized in recent years for their lack of bureaucratic oversight and their transformation into for-profit institutions, which impact teacher retention.
Miron has spent decades studying charter school reforms and tracking their development over time. Despite their high attendance rates, he says current charter reforms are pursuing a path that is far from their original intention, causing issues for current educators within the education system.
“Charter schools were going to be locally run,” Miron said. “They were going to provide new opportunities for teachers, they were going to be innovative. They were going to be highly accountable and transparent. [Now] we don’t see local involvement. We don’t see opportunities for teachers. We see teachers not having voices in these schools; initially, that was not the case. There were a number of teacher-run schools, and there were a number of situations where teachers were on school boards.”
Studies on the benefits of charter schools, such as college readiness and academic attainment, have had mixed results, and, according to Miron, as charter schools in Michigan have evolved away from centralized oversight to outsourcing control to independent organizations, the motivation has shifted from community to profit.
“Today what we see are these companies, many of them out of state, some of them overseas, and this is where the decisions are being taken,” Miron said. “This is not a local addressing a local need, it’s [a] corporate opportunity. It’s about privatization.”
One of the caveats of a charter school’s independence is a lack of a teacher’s union, pension plan and the typical support systems provided to educators. As a result, the rate of teacher turnover in charter schools is higher than the rate of turnover in a traditional public school. Teacher turnover is measured on a yearly basis, from one fall semester to the next, and takes note of the number of teachers that leave the school during that year-long period.
For schools with low income and minority students like Detroit, that number is disproportionately high. Schools with a teacher turnover rate of 30 percent saw nearly three quarters of students come from low-income families (and charter schools overall tend to serve lower-income families; as of 2018, 75 percent of charter school students are enrolled in a subsidized lunch program).
One of the main causes of teacher turnover is the discrepancy in pay between city charter schools and district schools. According to ChalkBeat, 6 percent of Michigan teachers in 2018-2019 left their city charter schools for a district school, whereas 1 percent of district teachers left for a charter school.
“Teachers in charter schools have it pretty bad because usually they have worse working conditions, and this is based on a survey that we’ve done across [Michigan],” Miron said. “They tend to have a lower salary and benefits. Teachers go to charter schools mostly as a stepping stone to get into a district job where they’ll have a pension and a better salary.”
For many states in the U.S., a teacher’s salary is too low to keep them a part of the middle class. In 2012, 67 percent of teachers who left the profession said that an increase in salary was extremely or very important in their decision to return. Inadequate or non-existent pension plans are one of the biggest reasons teachers end up leaving their school or profession. It quickly becomes a domino effect, explained Miron.
“They have pension responsibilities for the earlier teachers and now there’s fewer and fewer public school teachers who pay into that system to be able to sustain the pension system,” Miron said. “The charter school systems are universally not part of the state secure pension fund; they are private teachers, private employees of the education management organizations. So it’s the school system in general, but in Detroit and urban centers it’s kind of a perfect storm.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated teacher frustrations. Increasing uncertainty about virtual learning and a lack of preparation has contributed to the wearing down of teachers, though Miron says we don’t know yet how many teachers have left the profession due to the pandemic. But even before the switch to virtual learning, researchers have been concerned about rising teacher turnover rates, especially in urban charter schools.
“There’s been a mass exodus of teachers and already we were seeing [this] before the pandemic; we were seeing that many new teachers are not staying in the profession for more than three years. And we are seeing increased frustration in teachers in just over 30 states that teacher salaries have not increased since the 2008-09 collapse,” Miron said.
Recent school reforms have created uncertainty in job stability because teachers are evaluated based on their students’ test scores and educational achievement. Miron says principals are at a crossroads knowing that they cannot place their best teachers with the neediest children because their employment security is based on the student’s performance. This leaves teachers feeling voiceless, powerless and frustrated.
When a teacher leaves a school, it can negatively affect a student’s trust and damage the strength of community building and bonding. Charter schools have tried to adapt to the revolving door of educators by changing their instruction plans to lessen the impact of teacher loss on students.
“We see many charter schools have shifted their teacher profiles to direct instruction,” Miron said. “It’s a scripted instruction so the students aren’t as affected by teacher attrition. When a teacher leaves a school, if they have a relationship with the student and family, it hurts children. But if that teacher is only reading a script—if that teacher is a virtual teacher who only monitors their progress but doesn’t communicate directly—that teacher can come and go and the students hardly notice.”
Because charters share government funds with public schools, both types of schools are affected when the other is struggling. Miron says students and teachers in charter and public school institutions are being affected by changes in education policy, especially in areas with a high proportion of charter schools like Detroit.
“[Researchers] often look at Detroit as this poster child of failed school choice,” Miron said.“And it’s just really unfortunate. Intentionally or unintentionally, the policies led to a decimation of the public school district. Private contractors experimenting on these very vulnerable and high poverty schools, experimenting with ideas that have not been tested, ideas that would never be tested in a suburban district. But they all failed, and each one has left Detroit more in debt […] And neither system has the resources because they’re splitting limited resources. But neither of them can pick themselves up.”
Although charter schools face the greatest conflict right now with teacher turnover rates, the looming teacher crisis is a cause for concern across districts and for all types of schools.
Despite these fears, Miron believes there is still hope for both the public and charter schools of Detroit. Increased state funding is at the forefront of policy proposals to address Michigan’s teacher turnover rates. Investment in Michigan’s schools would address wage concerns for teachers and staff and would provide much-needed support systems like better teacher training and mentorship.
“I know there’s still grassroots groups that are really pushing to do something about the education system,” Miron said. “I know there’s local governments again with the local school board and I’m really hoping that things can change. I think there’s increasing hope, especially when I talk to community groups in Detroit about regaining control of the schools and trying to implement reforms.”