As the fall elections approach, a dangerous storm may be looming on the horizon for educational choice in Michigan. Parents whose children have benefited from charter schools or other options soon may be pressed to take a stand to secure their rights.
The struggle over school choice in Michigan has more deeply partisan roots than in most places. Though public charter schools haven’t been universally favored anywhere, in most states they were launched with key support from Democratic leaders.
It wasn't that long ago an African-American Democratic president touted charter schools as "incubators of innovation" and declared they "play an important role in our country's education system." Sure, there was tension and disagreement within his party over the issue, and he never embraced a broader vision for parental choice. But today, President Barack Obama's support of charters seems like a distant dream. What once was a respectable nonpartisan position has fallen out of favor with a harsh backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
The stakes for Michigan's children and indeed the whole state are very real. Benign neglect is no longer an option for aspiring Democratic leaders. Opposition to charters has become a litmus test for major candidates, including those who want to be Michigan's next governor.
Democratic front-runner Gretchen Whitmer has staked her candidacy on reining in parents' options. According to her campaign website, "We cannot continue to let Michigan’s charter schools fail our kids." Her campaign's education plan hints at a variety of new special regulations focused on charters, though she misleads voters by selling the proposals as providing fairness and balance.
Never mind that charter schools continue to exist because families have pursued them to escape other options that didn't work as well. Never mind multiple studies finding the average Michigan student learns significantly more by switching to a charter school, or that charters get significantly better bang for the buck.
The rhetoric coming from Whitmer's primary political rivals is even stronger than her own. At a debate on Mackinac Island, fellow progressive Abdul El-Sayed repeated an unfounded theory to explain Michigan's poor national showing. He employed a host of political buzzwords to scapegoat "a Betsy DeVos agenda" and "corporate-backed charter schools."
But Shri Thanedar may have taken the cake with his blunt statement: "We must outlaw for-profit charter schools in Michigan." (Whitmer has fashioned herself more moderate by only explicitly calling to stop their expansion.) Of course, technically, "for-profit charter schools" do not exist, and Michigan's conventional districts pay profit-making companies far more for various services than do the charters Thanedar wants to ban.
These candidates' statements are not just empty appeals to a hostile segment of primary election voters. Adverse action in 2019 and beyond remains a real threat, more so than when Jennifer Granholm presided over the governor’s office. Obligatory attacks on choice and charter schools now line the Democrats' path to political prestige.
The party's Lansing lawmakers already see charter schools as thieves, “stealing” money (as Rep. Kristy Pagan of Canton put it) rightfully meant for the current system. Next year, anti-choice legislation could get a serious hearing, legislation a potential Gov. Whitmer or Thanedar appears more than ready to sign.
Even without a friendly Legislature, though, an anti-choice executive could make university board appointments that undermine the key authorizers who support and hold accountable most of the state's charters.
A shift in power at the State Capitol would also embolden leaders in Detroit who are threatened by their increasingly successful education rivals. Even with Republican majorities in the Legislature, they nearly secured significant restrictions to charters in 2016. The same Legislature had to pass several laws to stop the Detroit school district from blocking a successful charter from buying a new building needed for its growth. The superintendent who advocated for the restrictions also has threatened to pull the plug on charters authorized by his district.
When it comes to the state of educational freedom in Michigan, a different political environment is coming. Either the Mackinac Center will have to dig in to fight more defensive battles, or we will be able to expand our focus on helping students secure access to additional effective learning options.
The good news is that it's not too late to awaken to the threat and opportunity that lies before us.