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 Article of Interest - Charter Schools

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 schools.

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 two votes.

"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 consensus."

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 doesn't like.

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 to 150.

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 Legislature.

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 school students.

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."

Proving performance

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 students.

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 they're improving."

Proving value

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 district.

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," Quisenberry said.

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 those schools."

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 districts.

"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 charter schools.

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 scores.

"I think they've done a tremendous job of managing limited resources and getting as much money as they can to the classroom."

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 teachers yet.

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 said.

"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 school counterparts.

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," Palmer said.

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 legacy.

"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."

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