Among the authorizers of Michigan’s charter schools, Bay Mills Community College has been seen as both the hero and the villain. When the small Upper Peninsula college run by the Ojibway Indian tribe began authorizing charter schools two years ago, its administrators probably had little notion of the controversies that lay ahead.
Bay Mills's leaders originally planned to open a charter school on their Upper Peninsula reservation because they felt that the region and the Ojibway tribe had unmet educational needs. But as they studied their options, they concluded that other areas of the state suffered from the same problem. Thus, when they chartered their first schools in Bay County and in Pontiac in 2002, they contemplated authorizing more schools statewide.
For Bay Mills, this was more than a theoretical exercise, since the college was in an unusual position. When Michigan’s charter school law was enacted, teachers unions and legislators supportive of the monopoly public school system sought and won a provision to cap at 150 the number of charter schools that universities could open — a limit that the burgeoning charter school movement reached several years ago.
But the cap does not apply to community colleges. Moreover, because Bay Mills is run by an Indian tribe, its effective area covers all of Michigan, not the smaller jurisdictions typical of other community colleges. As a result, Bay Mills can freely authorize charter schools anywhere in the state except Detroit, which is isolated by special exemptions.
This year, according to Bay Mills's figures, the college opened 15 new charter schools, and it also brought two existing charter schools under its aegis. It now oversees a total of 28 charter schools, located all over Michigan — Brimley, Alpena, Algonac, Southfield, Ypsilanti and Monroe, among others. One other school has received a charter from the college, but has not opened yet.
Naturally, the state’s education establishment, led by the Michigan Education Association, has seen these schools as a curse rather than a blessing, holding them to be a "loophole" and a "circumvention of the cap," rather than a legitimate application of state law.
In 2002, the MEA supported House Bill 4800 (H-4), which, if it had passed, would have restricted the number of schools Bay Mills could authorize. In 2003, state Superintendent Tom Watkins even refused to issue "authorization numbers" to several new Bay Mills charter schools so that they could receive state funds. After a firestorm of protest and an admission from the superintendent’s office that it was on shaky legal ground, the numbers were issued, and the schools were opened.
Attempts to persuade the Legislature and state officials to block new Bay Mills charters have so far proved futile, as well as legally dubious. And while new stealth attempts are always possible, it is hard to believe that the state's education establishment would be callous enough to try to shut the schools down now. Closing schools that are already teaching eager students would raise a hue and cry among the public and in Lansing that could undermine the cause of charter opponents for years to come.
Nevetheless, Bay Mills continues to find itself poorly served by hostile state officials. An Aug. 11 Detroit News article about the certification of charter school teachers incorrectly reported: "Among the charter school authorizers, Bay Mills Community College had the lowest percent of certified teachers: 51 percent. Grand Valley State University, with 92 percent, had the largest."
The paper later had to run a correction stating that 93 percent of Bay Mills teachers are certified. The Michigan Department of Education had miscalculated the numbers.
Bay Mills schools are too new yet to be definitively analyzed for academic success. But if they replicate the track record of other charter schools, they should be on reasonably firm ground. While charter school students often enter charter schools with below-average test scores, a 2002 Mackinac Center analysis showed that test scores in Michigan’s charter schools increased between 28 percent and 55 percent — ahead of traditional public school gains of no more than 29 percent. As Dan Quisenberry of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies said, charter schools "are succeeding academically. 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 are improving."
Despite flawed media coverage and willfully blind posturing over "low" charter test scores, studies have shown that more than 70 percent of Michigan parents with school-age children want more charter schools. Similarly, MAPSA has reported that 70 percent of the state’s charter schools now have waiting lists.
While Bay Mills charter schools may seem like a threat to some, they represent an opportunity long overdue for many parents and their children. These families just have to hope that Bay Mills can continue to weather the controversy.
Jon B. Perdue is education policy research associate at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.