Fight for charter schools
continues in Michigan
by Dave Groves, The Oakland
Press, February 10, 2003
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Few issues in education are as controversial as charter
Even so, a large group of state lawmakers are determined to
fight to increase their numbers throughout Michigan this year.
House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy, wanted to create new
charter schools last session. Now, he is renewing his fight to
increase the number of charters - or "public school academies"
- state universities can authorize.
Last session, he just missed the mark. Though the state House
of Representatives passed it, Johnson's bill to create 15 new
charter schools in Detroit died on the Senate floor by just
"He still stands by that goal - even after the ups and downs
of the last session," said Matt Resch, Johnson's spokesman. "I
think it would be fair to say we're going to go back to a
blank slate now and see where we might be able to get some
Rep. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, said a new bill in this
legislative session is likely.
"I was surprised that it wasn't passed," she said of last
year's effort. "I think there just must be some tweaks we can
make so we can get this through."
That will be the big concern.
Republicans are even more firmly in control of the lower House
than they were last session. But Democrats, who are
historically less friendly to charter schools, gained one seat
in the Senate. For the first time in a dozen years, a Democrat
sits in the governor's chair - with the power to veto laws she
Michigan lawmakers first authorized publicly funded charter
schools in 1993.
During the 1994-95 school year, follow-up legislation limited
the number of such schools state universities could authorize
Today, 188 charter schools operate in Michigan. Many of those
are authorized by community colleges, local school districts
or intermediate districts. None of those other institutions
have the number of schools they can charter limited by the
Bay Mills Community College, located in Brimley on the Lake
Superior shore southwest of Sault Ste. Marie, for example, has
authorized 12 new charter schools to open in the fall. Just
one will open in Oakland County - the Academy of Waterford.
In Oakland County, 6,991 children attend 14 charter schools -
representing about 6.7 percent of all the county's public
Newly elected Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was heavily backed
by the anti-charter Michigan Education Association, has made
clear her support for traditional public schools.
But politics is about compromise - and while Republicans may
not get everything they want, Granholm will likely have to
entertain the possibility of more charters if she has any hope
of winning support for her legislative agenda, said House
Education Committee Chair Brian Palmer, R-Romeo.
"So far, the governor has taken some tough steps and seems to
be willing to work with us," he said. "The bottom line is that
charters are in demand. Parents want the choices."
David Plank, director of the Education Policy Center at
Michigan State University and co-author of a 1999 study on
state charter school performance, said 72 percent of parents
of school-age children want more charter schools.
The Michigan Association of Public School Academies says about
70 percent of the state's charter schools have waiting lists.
Demand persists - despite arguments that charters have failed
to live up to the promise that they would become laboratories
of educational innovation.
"We see no evidence at all that charter schools are more
innovative than traditional public schools," Plank said. In
fact, standardized test scores of students in charters
continue to lag behind those of traditional public school
But charter school supporters argue that this is because their
students are most likely those who had trouble in public
schools. And they say their students are achieving more rapid
increases in test scores.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think
tank based in Midland, reported in September that test scores
from Michigan's charter schools increased between 28 percent
and 55 percent - ahead of traditional public school gains of
up to 29 percent.
"They are succeeding academically," said Dan Quisenberry,
president of the state association of public academies.
"What you see when you look at standardized test scores is
that charters are behind, but you don't see the speed at which
With the performance debate yet to be resolved, much
discussion over the future of charters in Michigan has turned
to accountability. Of particular importance: Proving that
state public education funding is being used effectively.
"Just because people support charter schools doesn't mean that
it's good government policy," Plank said.
One big question: Who is watching over them?
Like traditional public schools, charter schools receive an
annual state aid grant of at least $6,700 per pupil. But where
traditional schools are overseen by elected school boards,
each charter is overseen by a board appointed by its
authorizing organization - a state university, community
college, intermediate school district or local school
Charter school opponents say the public lacks power to hold
those appointed boards accountable for their decisions. But
supporters say that if they fail to adequately educate
students, parents can take their kids away.
Lost students means lost revenue, and at some point, the
charter school will be forced to close. "Somebody needs to
prove to me that you can have more accountability than that,"
But Don Wotruba, a legislative analyst for the Michigan
Association of School Boards, said the wait-and-see approach
is not a good use of public money.
"It's everybody in the community that has an interest, not
just parents, because it's taxpayer dollars that are funding
Mary Dettloff, Granholm's spokeswoman, said this must be
resolved before the governor will compromise on expanding the
charter school cap.
"The whole thing falls down to accountability," Detloff said.
"Right now, they don't have any real accountability to the
state in terms of how taxpayer dollars are being used."
There appears to be no easy solution.
Some lawmakers have suggested that the Michigan Department of
Education or local intermediate school districts should
oversee charter school boards, but spokesman T.J. Bucholz said
state education officials don't even have funding to meet a
legal obligation to oversee state university authorization of
charter schools, let alone the others.
He noted that the department has one full-time employee to
oversee the 13 state universities authorizing charter schools.
There is no one to look after charters authorized by community
colleges, intermediate school districts and local school
"Something in the math there isn't quite right," Bucholz said.
"We have got to ... at least have staff to look at what these
authorizers are doing."
And the governor wants to cap the community college charters,
too. Dettloff said until that happens, Granholm will oppose
expanding the state university cap.
"There has to be something to fix the Bay Mills problem," she
said. "The state has no oversight of those schools."
But Palmer said compromise on this, too, is not far out of
reach. "I don't think anyone wants to see that as the sole
agency authorizing charter schools in the state," he said.
The business of education
Some question whether Michigan's current budget deficit will
allow for a compromise that nearly won approval of last year's
cap expansion proposal. The bill included a provision granting
the Detroit Public Schools $7 million to offset state funding
it would lose as students flocked to the new 15 proposed
Now, the state is staring at a $2 billion deficit. Is the
extra money for Detroit off the table? "I can't say that won't
be part of the conversation and I can't say that it will be,"
Resch said. He acknowledged, however, that frugal is the word
of the day.
Palmer argues that legislators should support creation of new
charters with or without financial incentives to affected
public school districts, simply because charters are
financially more efficient.
"I think if we had more charters, it would help the budget
situation because a lot of the costs of education would go
down," he said.
That's based on the theory that charters enjoy lower personnel
costs and less bulky administrative structures than
traditional public schools.
At the same time, they do not have the same power to issue
bonds for school improvement projects.
"Look what they've been able to accomplish despite the
limitations they have," Resch said, noting improved test
"I think they've done a tremendous job of managing limited
resources and getting as much money as they can to the
Margaret Trimer-Hartley, spokeswoman for the Michigan
Education Association, said personnel costs could grow if
teaching staff in charter schools look to organize, however.
"We're having a lot of conversations (with charter teachers),"
though it isn't clear that the MEA represents any charter
Trimer-Hartley said increased representation of charter
teachers would only help state education. "What we've heard
and what we believe is that the union gives the employees a
voice in how the district administers its resources," she
"We think the benefits of higher involvement from the people
working directly with the students are of great value and pay
big dividends in the end."
Another budget concern charters will likely face: Providing
students with facilities as well-equipped as their traditional
Unlike the latter, charter schools are not permitted by law to
issue bonds for school improvement projects.
"If we're going to equip the (public school academies), we're
going to have to provide them the means to fund improvements,"
He noted, however, that there is no serious discussion yet on
how this might be achieved.
What does seem to be clear is that participants on both sides
of the debate anticipate that more charter schools are coming.
Wotruba said Granholm's election as governor may not prove to
be as much of an impediment as some expect, simply because
both she and the Republican-controlled House and Senate will
be forced to compromise if either hopes to leave a legislative
"Because she's there, it's going to create a system where all
the players gather around the table," Wotruba said. "This
might actually be a session where we see a charter school bill
come out of the Legislature."