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 Article of Interest - Charter Schools

Charter school study finds support is solid
MSU report may play role in effort to lift current cap
By Sharon Terlep, Lansing State Journal, December 5, 2002
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EAST LANSING - Nearly three out of four of the state's residents support charter schools, according to a Michigan State University survey that comes at a critical time in the contentious charter debate.

Republican state lawmakers are scrambling to pass a law before year's end that would make way for more of the publicly funded alternative schools in Michigan.

A bill to lift the cap on university-run charters fell five votes short in the House on Tuesday, though supporters vow to try again.

"We're not trying to sway the Legislature with this," said David Plank, director of the Education Policy Center at MSU, which conducted the independent survey released Wednesday.

"This doesn't say if (people) know a lot about charter schools or whether charter schools are sufficiently accountable. It just indicates that charter schools are an accepted part of our educational system."

The survey found support for charters strongest among blacks and adults with school-aged children. Only in the Upper Peninsula did more people oppose charters than support them.

In the southwest region of Michigan, which includes the Lansing area, about 72 percent supported charters.

The survey of 933 Michigan residents, which asked whether respondents supported or opposed charter schools, was conducted May 21 through July 16, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. Researchers are still preparing the results of the rest of the survey.

Charter supporters say the schools give parents and students more academic choice and freedom and create competition that forces public schools to improve.

Those opposed to lifting the cap - now at 150 on university-chartered schools - say the schools lack proper oversight and haven't been proven to offer a better education.

Michigan's 188 charter schools enroll about 170,000 students.

Public support might help pressure lawmakers lift the cap, said political analyst Bill Rustem, vice president of Lansing's Public Sector Consultants.

And it could make a difference if the bill doesn't pass this year and comes up in the 2003-04 session after Gov. John Engler leaves office.

Engler supports lifting the cap. Democratic Gov.-elect Jennifer Granholm thinks the existing system needs more accountability.

"But really the bigger impact will be what the governor does and what (House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy) does," Rustem said. "It wouldn't be unprecedented for it to come up again and be passed yet this year."

Dec. 13 is the last scheduled day of the legislative session.

If passed, the legislation would increase the number of schools that universities can open - the most common route. School districts, intermediate school districts and community colleges also can charter schools.

Universities could open 10 more charters a year through 2007 under the bill. Another 15 charters aimed at specific groups of students, such as students with disabilities, could be opened each year between 2003 and 2007. Then, 10 more schools could open every year through 2017.

The legislation also gives the Department of Education new oversight powers over charters and requires the schools to advertise to attract special education students.

The additions are based on recommendations made earlier this year by a commission headed by Michigan State University President Peter McPherson.

"I don't know that there's anything we can add to this that won't be giving up too much one way or the other," said Rep. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, who sponsored the bill.

With six Republicans opposed to lifting the cap, supporters need Democrats to get the 56-vote majority needed to pass the bill. No Democrats voted in favor of the bill Tuesday.

Support won't come easily, said House Minority Leader Buzz Thomas, D-Detroit. He said many Democrats are worried there's not enough measures in place to protect public schools, particularly in Detroit's struggling system.

"I recognize my constituents are going to charter schools," Thomas said. "I don't think I should fully stand in the way of that, but I don't want to advocate for unchecked expansion."

In Lansing, about 2,000 students are enrolled in charters - nearly 10 percent of the city's students. The first of the region's 10 charters debuted in 1994. The newest opened in 1999.

But while charter school enrollment statewide is up more than 25 percent in two years, head counts at Lansing's charters dipped 5 percent in the same period, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

Improvements in Lansing's traditional public schools and a decision to downsize at one of the city's largest charters are the primary reasons. Seven of the area's 10 charters have gained students.

Still, the numbers could be a sign Lansing's market is saturated and wouldn't see more charters under a higher cap.

William Crenshaw wants more charters so parents can have the experience his four children have had at the Michigan Early Childhood and Elementary Center in Lansing.

"It's a more controlled environment and the administration has a tighter hold on the behavior," said Crenshaw, of Lansing, whose children are in preschool through fourth grade at the 175-student school.

"They're getting plenty of attention."

Contact Sharon Terlep at 377-1066 or
Key findings of survey
83 percent of people ages 30-49, who are most likely to have school-age children, support charter schools.
75 percent of blacks support charter schools, compared with 71 percent of whites.
79 percent of parents with children younger than 18 support charter schools.
Republicans and independents are more likely to favor charter schools than Democrats.  The survey of 933 Michigan residents was conducted May¨›21 through July 16, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
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