Category: News Briefs Written by Britney Spear
Fresh off a fun filled day of festivities commemorating the second swearing in of President Barack Obama, Americans and folks in Washington alike must return to business as usual. That means refocusing on the most pressing issues for an upcoming agenda that will define the next four years. Citizens across the country witnessed in Obama’s inaugural speech that he recognizes the urgency of action, calling attention to social issues affecting various groups within the fabric of America’s identity.
The question on the minds of many is ‘what will the next four years bring’? Will Obama focus on some of the most pressing issues that have yet to be addressed?
The past four years have brought about much underrated progress. Steps taken in the first term have placed our country on the right path. After years of politicians promising to focus on health care, the President successfully set out and enacted an effective plan. Obama’s bailout breathed life into a dying auto industry, one that has since returned to a level of prosperity not seen since the 2007 recession. Though the economy may not be exactly where it needs to be, it has recovered with a steady increase in jobs. And, let us not forget, the current administration’s capture and killing of America’s most wanted assailant Osama Bin Laden. All things considered, one might ask ‘what more can be proven’?
The fact is much remains to be seen. In November, voters granted Obama with an opportunity to return to the White House to continue enacting the vision set forth during his 2008 campaign. Certain issues still loom as citizens look toward our federal government to provide the solutions.
The ‘superhero’ status voters imbued to Obama when he accepted his role as leader of the ‘free world’ is one that he will not escape. Over the next four years, people will be eagerly watching to see if Obama can continue to shape his legacy as one of the greatest American Presidents. For some, he may have already reached that milestone. For others, the ‘verdict’ is still out.
Follow Britney Spear on Twitter @missbritneysp
Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 January 2013 09:48
Category: News Briefs Written by Minehaha Forman
(Photo credit: Heather Rousseau of Circle of Blue.org)
Special Report: Five years ago if you said the word “frack”, you may have been taken for a recovering potty mouth. But today, fracking—lingo for hydraulic fracturing, a procedure used to extract natural gas and oil from shale rock formations—has become a household term nationwide thanks to a recent flurry of films, articles, and protests attempting to defame the practice.
But fracking, which uses powerful injections of chemical fluid and sand to crack deep-seated rock and release gas and oil deposits, has been going on for more than 60 years.
“With respect to hydraulic fracturing we’ve been regulating this for a very, very long time,” said Brad Wurfel, director of communications for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “It’s as old as the freeways.”
So what changed?
Advancements in technology have made fracking more economical and companies better equipped to access vast energy reserves previously thought unreachable according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
These rapid developments in drilling methods have positioned fracking as a champion of U.S. energy independence. They also have roused the ire of environmentalists, filmmakers, and citizens concerned that widespread fracking could contaminate food and water supplies.
Despite it’s history, fracking has not been researched thoroughly enough to tell whether its pros outweigh its cons, according to Barry Rabe, Professor of Public and Environmental Policy at the University of Michigan and Director of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy.
Use of the procedure has outgrown the rate of the research surrounding it, allowing supporters and opponents of the unconventional gas extraction method to run unchecked with unsound statistics, Rabe suggests.
“Shale [fracturing] is not a new industry but it is expanding on a scale not anticipated,” Rabe told MIchronicle.com. “I would argue we’re just at the point of beginning to think about a real science research program [to explore] fracking.”
Rabe noted that a number of studies conducted to measure the environmental impact of fracking have been discredited due to their incestuous ties to the gas and oil industry.
And while there have been reports of ground water contamination in areas where fracking has taken place, none of these have been linked to it in the absence of credible long-term research.
“There’s not a lot of research before and after [fracking],” Rabe said. “We just don’t know.”
Fracking In Michigan
Despite its half-century-plus run in Michigan, hydraulic fracturing has not been a large enterprise in the state, something Governor Rick Snyder is looking to change.
In a public address in November, Snyder unveiled his administration’s plan to research and expand hydraulic fracturing in Michigan.
Snyder touted the plan as one that would buoy Michigan’s economy, offer a cleaner alternative to coal, and lower gas bills statewide.
Perhaps fracking’s biggest environmental challenges have been concerns over its stumping the development of renewable energy, its massive water use, and the chemicals used in the “fracking fluid”.
A number of Michigan grassroots organizations are calling for the elimination of the practice claiming it threatens water and food safety in the areas it takes place. Some states have legislation pending that would halt the practice until further research has been conducted, and the state of Vermont has banned fracking altogether.
“Millions and millions of gallons of good water turned into a toxic, radioactive-laden, carcinogenic chemical “soup” – stored in huge pits or re-injected deep into Mother Earth – is not acceptable to those who care about protecting the health and safety of the waters of Michigan . . . or of the grandchildren,” Victor McManemy, chair of Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination said in a statement last year.
But according to Wufel the current fear of fracking is coming from a world of “what ifs”. Thus far, he says there have been no environmental or health mishaps to tar its reputation in Michigan.
“With 60 plus years and 12,000 wells behind us we are confident that we can produce gas and oil in this state and still keep protecting the environment,” Wurfel said, adding the future gas production through fracking could be “quite large”.
The key is making sure Michigan, currently a small scale natural gas producer, is equipped to safely handle the growing pains brought by a rapid fracking expansion.
Rabe suggests Michigan’s record is hard to compare to states with higher levels of fracturing activity.
“In the Michigan case we’re talking about a small amount of activity not a high scale operation,” he said. “We’re only beginning to explore that.”
It’s too early to tell whether Michigan will plunge full throttle into fracking or more gradually expand.
“It's generally understood that market conditions will play a big role in how quickly or how soon gas development ramps up in the state,” Wufel said via e-mail. “But the DEQ is ready to manage whatever happens.”
Michigan V. Pennsylvania
Perhaps the nation’s best example fast fracking expansion comes from Pennsylvania. In 2011 alone, natural gas production more than doubled in the Keystone State to make up more than 1 trillion cubic feet due to production from the fracking of Marcellus shale—sedimentary marine rock located thousands of feet deep in the earth’s crust—according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Pennsylvania, formerly famous for coal production, has recently been dubbed the Saudi Arabia of natural gas due to its vast gas stores paired with increasingly aggressive shale drilling strategy.
This hasn’t come without controversy. A number of scathing films such as Gasland and Promised Land used Pennsylvania as ground zero for what they painted as a pending environmental disaster.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lawmakers have been fighting to keep up with the state’s spreading pursuit of natural gas in shale.
One prominent example of this is the passage of Pennsylvania Act 13 of 2012, which mandates tougher environmental standards, establishes no-drill zones, and enhances protection of water supplies according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
But Michigan has a longer history in regulating the now controversial extraction technique. Energy company representatives operating in Michigan say regulations here are already some of the toughest.
Greg Brown, Executive Vice President of Burn Brite Energy, a gas company that operates in several states including Michigan, says the mitten is no regulatory breeze. “Michigan regulations are greater than or as strict as any state I’ve worked in,” Brown said.
An example of this comes from rigorous testing of well sleeves; protective steel piping filled with cement before fracturing occurs.
“A gas or oil well isn’t just a hole in the ground,” Wufel said. “Operators test the integrity of the cement before they finish the well with fracturing.”
One of environmentalist’s major concerns with fracking is the issue of wastewater disposal. The process uses large amounts of water and sand mixed with chemicals to fracture shale leaving behind large amounts of toxic liquid leftovers.
“We require that chemical liquids are handled very carefully in steel lined containers and injected deep into the earth,” Wufel said. “If they come out they can potentially contaminate groundwater. But Wufel said noted that the act of fracturing is a one-time, two-day event that opens a well for decades of production. “The public should understand that our mission is to protect Michigan's land, air and water.”
While Michigan disposes of its fracking fluid in-state, Pennsylvania has geological barriers preventing such action.
That’s why Pennsylvania exports its toxic fracking waste to be buried in Ohio despite controversy in the receiving state.
Real benefits from fracking’s gas production boom may not come for decades as the nation continues its dependence on coal. Despite the steep natural gas influx, Pennsylvania still generated 44 percent of its net electricity from coal and 33 percent from nuclear power in 2011 according to the EIA.
But U.S. unconventional gas production is geared for a steep climb, the EIA predicts: It is set to represent nearly 50 percent of total U.S. gas production in 2035 compared to 23 percent in 2010.
This outlook puts Michigan in a promising place. In 2010, Michigan had more underground natural gas storage capacity – 1.1 trillion cubic feet – than any other State in the Union.
Like Pennsylvania, in 2011, Michigan’s three nuclear power plants and coal influx accounted for more than 80 percent the state’s net electricity.
Policy And Regulation
Due to limited Federal regulations on fracking, it’s up to the states to decide how they want to control this growing, unconventional gas extraction method.
It’s a chance for local policymakers to ask, “What does fracking policy look like?” Rabe said.
On the enforcement side, perhaps winning public confidence is a regulator’s biggest challenge. “Most of our environmental policy is reaction [after] something bad happens,” Rabe said, suggesting that charges in films like Gasland, regardless of accuracy, serve as a type of preventative scare tactic.
In a way, regulation agencies and activist filmmakers are in a race to shape public opinion on the growing industry as it emerges in the national spotlight.
“We need policies that are transparent, that are rigorous and efficient and gain public confidence. That’s the challenge.” Rabe said.
Some argue that the debate on fracking, especially in Michigan, has missed the point.
“I think what’s been lost in this conversation is that we have a fine regulatory program,” Wurfel said adding that charges in films like Gasland are unfounded. “If I heard what [people] have been hearing I’d be concerned as well.”
While Wurfel asserts that fracking regulations in Michigan are some of the best in the country, he said the DEQ understands that fracking is a serious business that has to be handled with strict oversight. According to Wurfel, the DEQ would like to see more transparency in the process—to ease public worry, if nothing else.
He said companies should be required to disclose their fracturing fluid formulas. Though these mostly contain water and sand, a small percentage of deadly chemicals used in the fluid is often lodged at the center of the fracking controversy.
“I think disclosure would go quite a way to make people feel more comfortable about the process,” he said. “Right now [the fracking fluid formulas] are protected under federal law just like the Colonel’s famous recipe.”
The general ingredients of fracking fluid are posted on the DEQ website, but exact formulas are not currently available—even to regulators.
It’s not just environmental questions that burden many aspects of the energy industry but taxing issues as well. “How do you tax gas extraction? What do these taxes pay for?” Are just two among swarm of questions on the topic, Rabe said. In Michigan, severance taxes imposed on energy companies go to cover regulation costs, presenting what some consider a conflict of interest.
The measure of good energy policy is finding a balance of production and safety. If Michigan can do that with fracturing shale, it could hit an economic gold mine. If not, it could hit a PR disaster, or worse.
One key benefit to accessing natural gas in shale includes inching closer to energy independence; something Rabe notes has been “the hallmark of every president since Richard Nixon through Barack Obama.”
Still, sound research is a missing piece to the fracking puzzle. To help address that, Rabe has joined the newly formed National Research Council on Risk Management and Governance Issues in Shale Gas Development.
“Universities are thinking about some of the natural gas issues and are looking at this more closely … it’s beginning around the world,” he said.
For regulatory agencies like the Michigan DEQ, Wurfel says all the tools are in place for successful maximization of the state’s natural gas resources.
“It’s a short story. Folks have a concern that the environment is not being protected. We believe it is,” he said. “We regularly review and update our regulatory protocols as necessary. Right now we are feeling very good about the structure of regulations. I’m pleased to see the governor making decisions to [expand natural gas production] that could help bring Michigan forward.”
Last Updated on Monday, 21 January 2013 10:14
Category: News Briefs Written by Britney Spear
It may be simply a strong coincidence that today marks the second official inauguration of America's first black President Barack Obama. Nevertheless, people across the country, African Americans and others, are pausing to reflect on the contributions made by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle for equality. Taking the matter a step further, one cannot help but to marvel at all that has since been accomplished.
Most Americans know the story. We have heard the accounts and seen the photos from a devastatingly dark time in American history. A time when blacks were treated as second class citizens and denied most of the rights so easily taken for granted in this day and age. Perhaps even more shocking that the historical footage is that this was not long ago. Countless names emerged as symbols in the fight for justice; yet, it is inarguably evident that MLK’s prominence surpasses most as the key figure of the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. King’s legacy is beyond measure. Living in a world that has over-saturated us with certain names from history, it is possible that in our routine observance, we neglect to completely and accurately wrap our heads around his enormity. Can we ever truly understand the relevance of what persons like MLK did? Not even fifty years after blacks fought to protect their voting rights, our country has a two-term president of African descent.
It would be easy for present day America to pat itself on the back for a job well done on the race for equality. The truth, however, is that certain persons paved the way toward this progress. They set the trend to be followed. One cannot help but imagine how things would be had they not done the work that they did. Granted, just as far as we have come we may have to go. Nevertheless, the strides made since the days of the civil rights struggle cannot be denied.
Many people across the nation will in some way commemorate MLK on this historical day. Whether it be through special activities and events, or simply witnessing President Barack Obama be sworn in for a second time as the leader of the ‘free world’. There isn’t much need for a party. The evolution of our current world is itself a celebration of the ‘dream’ MLK envisioned when he stood at the Lincoln Memorial and spoke in 1963. Dr. King himself may not have understood the relevance of this vision; yet, today, we are reflections of it in the flesh.
Follow Britney Spear on Twitter @missbritneysp
Last Updated on Monday, 21 January 2013 09:10
Category: News Briefs Written by Matt Rousch, WWJ
DETROIT — The Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation announces the hiring of experienced heath care foundation leader Anthony Werner as its President and CEO, effective mid-February, 2013.
Since 2002, Werner has simultaneously served as president of three foundations that benefit hospitals in the Toledo area — the Mercy Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Mercy St. Vincent Foundation and the St. Marguerite d’Youville Foundation II. Earlier in his career, he served in development leadership capacities for a hospital, a college and two community performing arts venues, in multiple states. Werner is also a Chartered Financial Consultant.
Werner succeeds Larry E. Fleischmann, M.D. who has served as Interim President and CEO since Oct. 1, 2012, after Cameron Hosner left the foundation to serve as president and CEO of The Judson Center.
“Tony Werner’s extensive experience in foundation leadership and fundraising and his knowledge as to how philanthropy can support health care combine to make him the best choice to lead our Foundation into the future,” said David K. Page, Chair of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation Board of Trustees. “Tony understands and will help us implement our strategic plan to increase our impact on the health and well-being of the children of this community. Our Board looks forward to working with him to grow our Foundation and increase our grants for research, education and community benefit.”
“This job attracted me because of the exceptional potential to grow this foundation to help even more children in Michigan have more days to play, nights to dream and time to just be kids,” said Werner. “I look forward to working with a talented team and this generous community to support research, education and community programs with one of America’s top children’s hospitals.”
Established in 2003, the CHM Foundation supports the healthcare needs of children by raising philanthropic support for pediatric medical education, pediatric focused research and prevention of childhood diseases and injuries, and child advocacy efforts. The Foundation is recognized as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization by the Internal Revenue Service and is governed by a 24-member board of directors. Learn more at www.chmfoundation.org.
Last Updated on Sunday, 20 January 2013 20:17
Category: News Briefs Written by Alexis Garrett Stodghill, theGrio
Hopping on board the Amtrak train in the grey of dusk, I noted with a short moment of appreciation the many African-American faces among the throngs groggily filing towards the boarding escalator. Here an aged couple escort each other affectionately down the platform. At a subsequent station, a young woman travels alone, her head wrapped in a scarf. She wants to keep hair hairstyle fresh for all the parties, events, and of course the parade on Monday that will commemorate President Obama’s swearing in.
Many news stories in recent days have questioned how important this second inauguration is for African-Americans, who may have become accustomed to the idea of what before 2008 might have been inconceivable: the first black president. Yet, if the high percentage of blacks on the train this morning is any indication, for many the second time around is just as momentous for the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama.
Steve Kerrigan, President and CEO of the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) spoke to theGrio about why this inaugural is still important for blacks.
While he acknowledged that second inaugurations are typically smaller affairs, “I think as Americans we should be just as excited about this inauguration as the first,” Kerrigan stated in a phone interview.
“[I]t’s really this president’s focus on service as a tribute to Dr. King that has made this inauguration so special,” he continued. “It’s building on the commitment [President Obama] made in 2009 to make the inauguration not just about the celebration of the president, but also a celebration of our country and the rich diversity of our country.”
In addition to the fact that the public swearing in is taking place on Dr. King’s holiday, the PIC has included remembrances of black history and today’s black culture in the weekend’s festivities. African-American marching bands and military squads will be a prominent part of Inauguration Day.
“In our parade alone we have a tribute float to Dr. King, we have a float dedicated to the Tuskegee airmen, which actually will have a model Red Tail plane on the float, and also a float dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement that features images representing the historic struggles of many of the civil rights movements,” Kerrigan added about the celebration. “Those are big focuses of our inaugural parade.”
The PIC head also reminded us that President Obama intends to use Bibles belonging to both President Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King for his public swearing in, in obeisance to the figures who paved the way for all African-Americans to enjoy freedom today.
“I don’t think there’s a better way to explain the poignancy and importance of this than to talk about the Bibles,” the committee lead explained about Obama’s plans for taking the oath of office. “On the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the great emancipator’s Bible will be placed on top of the traveling Bible of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the first African-American president of the United States will take the oath of Office, connecting those two great historic figures, not only to [each other], but to all of us through that one simple act of reciting those words.”
For President Obama, reciting his promise to uphold the Constitution using the Bibles of these two great men will be as much an act of humility as one of pledging commitment to the American people.
Last Updated on Monday, 21 January 2013 08:44
Category: News Briefs Written by Sabrina Tavernise, NYTimes
African-Americans who live in highly segregated counties are considerably more likely to die from lung cancer than those in counties that are less segregated, a new study has found.
The study was the first to look at segregation as a factor in lung cancer mortality. Its authors said they could not fully explain why it worsens the odds of survival for African-Americans, but hypothesized that blacks in more segregated areas may be less likely to have health insurance or access to health care and specialty doctors. It is also possible that lower levels of education mean they are less likely to seek care early, when medical treatment could make a big difference. Racial bias in the health care system might also be a factor.
“If you want to learn about someone’s health, follow him home,” said Dr. Awori J. Hayanga, a heart and lung surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who was the lead author of the study.
The study, published in JAMA Surgery on Wednesday, divided all counties in the country into three levels of segregation: high, medium and low. It found that lung cancer mortality rates, a ratio of deaths to a population, were about 20 percent higher for blacks who lived in the most segregated counties, than for blacks living in the least segregated counties.
Lung cancer is the top cause of preventable death in the United States. Blacks have the highest incidence of it and are also more likely to die from it. For every million black males, 860 will die from lung cancer, compared with 620 among every million white males. The rates were calculated over the period of the study, from 2003 to 2007.
The study drew on federal mortality data from that period, and segregation data from about a third of United States counties that had African-American populations large enough to measure. About 28 percent of Americans live in counties with low segregation, 40 percent in counties with moderate segregation and 32 percent in counties with high segregation.
The gap in outcomes persisted even after accounting for differences in smoking rates and socio-economic status, Dr. Hayanga said.
For whites, high levels of segregation had the opposite effect, a finding that surprised the authors. Whites who lived in highly segregated counties had about 6 percent lower mortality rates from lung cancer than those who lived in the least segregated counties, though researchers pointed out that the difference was slight enough that it was not clear whether it was meaningful.
Dr. David Chang, director of outcomes research at the University of California San Diego Department of Surgery, who wrote an accompanying editorial, said he hoped that the study would focus attention on the environmental factors involved in the stark disparities in health outcomes in the United States because they lend themselves to change through policy. Medical researchers tend to focus on factors that are harder to change, like the genetics and the behaviors of individuals.
“We don’t need drugs or genetic explanations to fix a lot of the health care problems we have,” he said.
Last Updated on Friday, 18 January 2013 09:36
Category: News Briefs Written by Zack Burgess
For many years now, African Americans have dealt with a Republican Party that has ignored its plight.
So when Colin Powell, who was the first African American to serve as secretary of state, said: "I'm a moderate, but I'm still a Republican," on NBC's Meet the Press, many Blacks were happy as he stirred some feathers. He talked about his party’s "dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party," clarifying in plain language: "What I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities."
What a powerful revelation by an African-American insider.
He made a point to talk about Sarah Palin's use of the term "shuck and jive" -- which Powell called "a racial-era slave term" -- in a Facebook post about the president. He also referenced Mitt Romney campaign surrogate John Sununu's dismissal of the president as "lazy" after his poor performance in the first presidential debate. Powell went so far as to insinuate that historically, racial slurs often followed when a black man was called lazy. "He didn't say he was slow, he was tired, he didn't do well; he said he was 'lazy.' Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to those of us who are African Americans, the second word is 'shiftless,' and then there's a third word that goes along with it."
Powell's critique rippled through the political chattering classes, in part because he is the highest-profile Black Republican to speak so candidly on the record about the party's racial baggage. But his comments also highlight one of the major hurdles the GOP faces in its quest to reclaim the White House and the Senate: how to avoid stepping on the land mine that is race in the age of Obama and how to remain politically relevant when you are a predominantly white party in an increasingly brown country.
Last Updated on Friday, 18 January 2013 09:22
Category: News Briefs Written by Paul Beshouri, Curbed.com
Downtown popup Moosejaw is digging Detroit so much that it just might stay forever, depending on whether or not sales remain strong. Originally scheduled to close December 22, the "outdoor outfitter" now has plans to remain open until at least the end of February. Moosejaw is renting the downtown space on a month-to-month basis from Dan Gilbert's Bedrock Real Estate, and it's hard to imagine Mr. Retail himself letting this fish off the hook. Especially when it's such a quirky, locally-owned fish. The Free Press tells us that Moosejaw would be the first major retailer to open up downtown since CVS set up shop near Campus Martius in 2006.
Last Updated on Thursday, 17 January 2013 09:28
Category: News Briefs Written by thehuffingtonpost
A recent poll found that while Michigan's new right-to-work laws are divisive, with 50 percent of the state's respondents supporting and 45 percent opposing legislation that unions say weakens their powers, they have had little effect on Governor Rick Snyder's overall approval rating.
The poll, conducted by Republican polling firm Mitchell Research & Communications, also found 50 percent of the 600 likely voters sampled approve of Governor Rick Snyder, who signed the RTW legislation in December after previously insisting he didn't want to pursue it. The poll found 43 percent do not approve of the job Snyder is doing.
The pollsters conducted a similar poll in December before right-to-work legislation was signed. In comparison, Snyder’s job approval is up 3 percent in the recent poll, but his disapproval numbers have also risen by 8 percent. Right to work support has stayed the same and opposition has risen 6 percent.
"Clearly, the ugly battle over R-t-W has not hurt the governor," Steve Mitchell, Mitchell president, said in a statement. "Given all the controversial legislation passed over the past two years, Governor Snyder is in very strong shape going into the last two years of his first term."
The factions against RTW would likely disagree. A group plans to protest Wednesday evening at the Capitol as Snyder gives his State of the State address. In recent weeks, Democrats have launched several public campaigns slamming Snyder. The right-to-work laws, which go into effect in March, are likely to be challenged in court.
The Detroit Free Press points to the variation in Mitchell poll's, when it's compared to one released by North Carolina Democratic pollsters Public Policy Polling a week after Snyder signed right-to-work laws. The PPP poll, which sampled 650 voters, found 41 percent support for RTW and 38 percent approval of Snyder.
"Now that things have calmed down in Lansing and the holidays have passed, public opinion has stabilized and the Governor and R-t-W legislation have a majority of the voters supporting them," said Mitchell.
The State of the State address will be streaming live here and on HuffPost Detroit.
The Mitchell poll conducted by live telephone operators between Jan. 7 and 10, 2013, sampled 600 likely voters in the November 2012 election and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Of the respondents, 42 percent identified as Democrats and 34 percent as Republicans. The questions were commissioned by by MIRS (the Michigan Information and Research Service). Their December poll was funded by right to work supporters, according to the Detroit News.
Last Updated on Thursday, 17 January 2013 09:14
Category: News Briefs Written by Joy Resmovits, thehuffingtonpost
Charter schools are the fastest-growing sector of public education, taking root in most U.S. states, thanks to a big push by the education reform lobby and the federal government's Race to the Top competition. And since the movement's inception in the early 1990s, its founders have learned a few things.
Across charter schools, there are similarities in what works to boost student achievement. A 2011 study identified five successes of charter schools: "frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time and high expectations."
But just because charter schools have the flexibility to become successful in these ways doesn't mean all of them meet those five criteria. In fact, most probably don't.
"Are they living up to their promise?" asked Harrison Blackmond, who works as the Michigan director for Democrats for Education Reform, a national pro-charter group. "No. I'm not so sure."
Many charter school advocates are now taking stock of the fruits of their lobbying efforts, and finding that for the movement to succeed, it has to get better at policing its own duds. It's hard to cobble together a coherent, quantitative answer to the question of whether charters live up to their funding levels across the country. But one state -- an early believer in the promise of charter schools -- offers a representative example.
Michigan has been at the center of charter school growth. In 1998-99, there were 138 charter schools in the state. This year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are 280.
In the early 1990s, a small but influential group of Michigan politicians, professors and activists led by then-Gov. John Engler (R) had an idea: Public schools should focus more on the business of teaching and learning. They wanted to be able to make changes to schools happen faster, but the bureaucracy of school administration, they felt, was always standing in their way. Moreover, they didn't think families and children should have to be confined to neighborhood schools -- especially if those schools were failing.
So they launched an ambitious legislative effort to bring charter schools to Michigan. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run, were a new concept at the time. The idea was that schools that proved their excellence should be independent -- they should have more discretion over things like curriculum, teaching staff and the length of the school day.
Twenty years later, there is no comprehensive index of national charter school rankings. Without them, it's hard to compare schools across state lines, especially because of differences in standardized tests. The closest thing to an answer is a trove of studies from Stanford University's CREDO center. Its national study from 2009 found that, on average, charter schools are no better and no worse than public schools -- but even that study only took a handful of states into account.
In Michigan, though, the evidence on charter school quality is clearer. Students in charter schools there perform worse on average than public school students, according to a 2007 study by Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University. A CREDO study on Michigan released this week found that 80 percent of charters perform below the 50th percentile of achievement in reading, and 84 percent perform below that threshold in math. On top of that, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, 26 percent of Michigan charter schools fall into the bottom 15 percent of the state's schools on 8th grade math exams, and 21 percent in 8th grade reading.
"It's disappointing for a lot of people here that had hoped that charters were really going to be the solution to urban children's lack of quality options," said Amber Arellano, who directs the nonpartisan advocacy group EdTrust Midwest. "They're not. There are not enough high-performing charters here [in Michigan] to really address the educational inequities that we have here in the state. Just letting the market decide isn't the answer."
There are, however, signs of hope: the CREDO study found that Michigan's charter school students learn at a faster rate, gaining about two months in reading and math knowledge over their public school peers annually.
Still, that study had its limitations: It didn't measure most high school students, and, more important, it only covered up until the 2010-2011 school year, a pivotal time in charter school history in Michigan.
In 2011, the Michigan legislature, like several other states, voted to "uncap" its charter schools. This major step deregulated charters and removed limits to the number of such schools that can open in Michigan. With few other accountability measures in place, there's no longer even the threat of competition to incentivize charter operators to improve their schools.
This year, after Michigan lifted its charter cap, 30 new schools opened -- the largest year-over-year increase since 1999-2000. But according to an analysis EdTrust Midwest provided to HuffPost, the schools that opened up during that rush are likely less than stellar.
Many of those schools are run by operating companies that already had existing charters throughout the state. According to EdTrust, some of those operators have shoddy records. The group looked to see whether their existing schools were performing at the 33rd percentile of the state's school ranking system. (They chose that level because it's the state average for low-income students.) They found that of 15 charter operators that opened new schools this year and had track records in the state, seven did not even meet that low benchmark.
This worries Arellano. "Some of the worst operators in the state are the ones that are growing the fastest," she said.
Greg Richmond, head of the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, was there at the beginning, and is invested in the movement's success. Richmond worked with then-Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan (now U.S. Secretary of Education) to build up charter schools there. But he, too, has realized they're not living up to their promise.
"The quality of schools in Michigan -- what you're seeing there is probably pretty nationally representative," Richmond said in an interview. "I never thought that all charter schools were going to be great."
Still, Richmond and other advocates disappointed by charter school quality are hopeful that the original promise can be restored. Despite the low averages in Michigan, there are examples of charter schools that defy the odds.
Richmond thinks states should get better at shutting bad charter schools down and is launching a campaign to get them to do so. In Michigan, Arellano is pushing for a solution to try to prevent those schools from opening in the first place.
When Michigan lifted its charter cap, a group of education organizations tried to urge the state to include quality controls. That measure failed in the Republican-dominated legislature. But these advocates are still pushing. "We think we need a really rigorous charter accountability framework," Arellano said. "There's still a demand for good charter schools."
Last Updated on Thursday, 17 January 2013 09:03
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