House Democrats on Thursday announced legislation to place a moratorium on opening any new charter public schools in Michigan. The gist of House Bill 5852 appears to be the equivalent of creating a new cap on charter schools.

Introduction of legislation by the minority party in the House during an election campaign is often viewed as a political statement, not a serious legislative effort. The fact that the press conference calling attention to the measure was held in the office of House Democratic leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, reinforces this interpretation.

“It’s clear that introducing major legislation with only 18 session days remaining in the year is more about political theater than public policy,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project. “While this bill has zero chance of passage, it will raise the profile of folks seeking attention and partisan support in the upcoming general election.

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“We find it interesting that House Democrats are falling over themselves to introduce bills to restrict school choice for underserved students while ignoring the abysmal performance of the 85 percent of traditional public schools in our major cities that are ranked at the very bottom of the state’s accountability system,” Naeyaert added.

Specifics of House Bill 5852 have yet to be disclosed. Sponsors Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, and Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, described the bill in the same generalities that appeared on the news release that was handed out at their press conference.

According to Rep. Roberts, HB 5852 would prohibit the creation of new charter public schools until legislation is enacted that would do the following:

  • Require complete transparency, including financial disclosure by authorizing bodies, charter schools and educational management organizations and their subcontractors.
  • Levy penalties for failing to comply with transparency and financial disclosure requirements.
  • Create comprehensive ethics and conflict of interest standards for charter schools, education management organizations, members of charter school boards of directors and authorizing bodies.
  • Require a more rigorous charter school authorizing process and strict oversight of existing charter schools to assure high-quality educational standards and outcomes for students.

Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, told Capitol Confidential that House Bill 5852 will be evaluated in the same manner that all proposed legislation is evaluated.

“Republicans have long felt that competition is good and that includes education,” Adler said. “Charter schools aren’t perfect, but that’s not to say that regular public schools don’t have problems as well. If the Democrats are really trying to offer solutions, then we’ll take a serious look at this bill and it will be reviewed in committee. But if this is just being done for publicity, as a political stunt, then it will be handled appropriately and we won’t be spending much time on it.”

One of the signature accomplishments of Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-controlled Legislature was the lifting an arbitrary cap on charter schools in 2011, something former Gov. John Engler repeatedly attempted but failed to do.

For Michigan Democrats, the charter school issue is an important aspect of their ties to entities, such as the Michigan Education Association, that are against school choice. Since the cap on charters was lifted, House Democrats have employed a classic approach used by party caucuses that are not in power. They created a task force to advance their position and agenda; found support from certain segments of the news media and like-minded members of the state board of education; and used vague poll questions in an effort to create a sense that the public supports their position on charter schools.

“In the past 21 years, the Michigan Department of Education and the Legislature have failed to properly oversee charter schools,” Rep. Roberts said. “Now, the MDE and the State Board of Education have called on the Legislature to do this work, so I am introducing a moratorium on all new charters until we fix the problems that exist in the way many charter schools operate.

“We have to ensure that charter schools are transparent and accountable to the taxpayers whose money they are spending, and that the primary focus is on delivering a quality education to their students,” Rep. Roberts added.

The House Democratic news release issued in conjunction with the press conference included the following:

A Detroit Free Press investigative series on charter schools that ran in June outlined some troubling findings, including a lack of financial transparency and accountability, authorizers allowing poor performing charters to stay open and unaddressed conflicts of interest. An August statewide poll conducted by EPIC-MRA found that 73 percent of respondents agree with a moratorium on opening new charters until standards can be put into place by the state. Additionally, 84 percent agree that Michigan needs a law requiring all charter schools to meet the same standards for student performance, accountability, openness and transparency that public schools must follow.

Dr. Casandra Ulbrich, vice president of the State Board of Education, was one the speakers at the press conference. Ulbrich is one of six Democrats on the eight-member state board of education. She is up for reelection on the statewide ballot this year.

“Student success should be the primary goal of our state’s education strategy,” said Ulbrich. “Our current policies are not leading to better outcomes for students. We need to take a step back and re-evaluate policies that allow unfettered charter and cyber school growth regardless of quality measures. A moratorium helps us do that. Michigan deserves an education strategy that works for all students and taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent.”

Audrey Spalding, director of education policy with Mackinac Center for Public Policy, pointed out that those proposing the moratorium seem to be sidestepping a great deal of compelling evidence that supports the value of the state’s charter schools.

“This is, sadly, a political ploy that will hurt Michigan students,” Spalding said. “These politicians are ignoring the most rigorous study on charter school performance, which found that charter students do better than their conventional peers. Michigan education policy should be about students, not adults."

In 2013, a Stanford University study showed that, when poverty and other factors were taken into account, students in Michigan public charter schools performed better academically than those in conventional public schools. Charter students gained two months of learning on average over their conventional school counterparts.

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See also:

CapCon Coverage of School Choice

From Detroit to the Ivy League: One Students Journey

Michigan Lifts Charter School Cap


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