More than two years after the state of Michigan easily reached its
self-imposed limit of 150 university-sponsored public school academies and the
political clamor to remove the "cap" began, an eight-member panel appointed by
the legislature recommended 130 more charters be allowed in the state-but not
without trade-offs allowing more regulation of charter schools. A bill produced
from the commission's recommendations was defeated by one vote in the state
House on May 1. The legislature is expected to revisit the issue in the coming
Dubbed "the McPherson Commission" after its chairman, Michigan State University
President Peter McPherson, the panel convened in the final months of 2001 after
the Michigan Legislature failed to reach agreement on whether to lift the
charter cap. On April 10, the commission released its recommendations, calling
not for eliminating the cap, but for increasing the number of charters.
Of the 130 additional university-authorized charters envisioned, five
"conventional" public school academies would be approved this year (for general
education with no particular curricular emphasis), 10 more would be permitted
each year for the next five years, and 15 "special-purpose" schools (with
particular emphases such as mathematics, humanities, or programs for the
learning disabled) would be permitted each year for the next 5 years.
The recommendations also include a raft of new regulations. The commission's
report calls for restrictions on public school academies greater than those on
regular public schools.
Currently Michigan is home to 189 public school academies that educate nearly
60,000 K-12 students. Of these, 35 have been sponsored by various intermediate
school districts, and three by community colleges. The remaining 150 schools are
sponsored by various public universities in the state. The
university-sponsorship mode is the most common sponsorship mode under Michigan's
charter school law. It is also the only mode that is limited by the cap. The cap
was reached in 1999.
The Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state's largest school employee
union, with the help of Democratic and Republican legislative allies, originally
worked to block Gov. Engler's efforts to lift the cap. Union representatives say
their opposition is based on concern over educational quality. Opponents,
however, say it is actually because charters, usually non-union, attract
students away from unionized public schools. This competition requires
traditional public schools to improve their efficiency, often by outsourcing
non-instructional services to non-union firms or by seeking alternatives to
high-cost, union-owned health care plans.
Despite the union's initial opposition to the cap increase, when the House bill
was crafted to include increased regulations on charter schools and limit the
number of schools that could be chartered in the coming years, the union
attempted to garner support for the bill that failed May 1.
Supporters of increasing the cap include the tens of thousands of Michigan
parents who take advantage of the opportunity to enroll their children in
charter schools. Citizens praised charter school learning environments in
testimony before the commission in Detroit and Grand Rapids last December. More
than 600 people attended these hearings.
The commission was created in order to examine whether legislation to raise the
cap on charters should be pursued. Advocates on both sides of the issue agreed
to appoint an eight-member commission, four members appointed by Democratic and
Republican legislative leaders from the Michigan House and Senate, two by Gov.
Engler, with the final seat being filled by State Superintendent of Public
Instruction Tom Watkins. Two key members were Engler appointee Richard McLellan,
a Lansing attorney and Mackinac Center for Public Policy board member who
drafted the initial charter school law, and MEA president Lu Battaglieri,
appointed by Senate Minority Leader John Cherry, D-Clio.
If the commission's recommendation is eventually approved, Michigan's public
school academies will face a host of new oversight and regulation, including:
A special annual test of all charter school students in grades 3-8, in
addition to the prescribed program of standardized testing administered to all
public schools. Those taking the test would be required to meet annual progress
standards that would be set by the superintendent of public instruction, a
requirement other public schools do not face.
Greater oversight of charter schools by their authorizers and oversight of the
authorizers by the State Department of Education. The state superintendent would
oversee universities authorizing charter schools through a new certification
process. Certifications could be revoked if authorizers do not effectively carry
out their responsibilities, as defined by the state.
The commission is also asking that long-term studies be conducted to compare
achievement in charter schools with that of other public schools.
Education reformers such as state Rep. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, had previously
proposed legislation that would have raised the charter cap by 50 schools in
2002 and 25 schools each year thereafter, with no limitations on the type of
school, whether conventional or special purpose. The original version of the
bill called for 50 additional schools in 2001 as well. A lack of consensus and
leadership in the legislature eventually stalled the bill.
Dan Quisenberry, executive director of the Michigan Association of Public School
Academies, objects to the limitations on the kinds of schools that can be
established, and to a number of geographical limitations that amount to what he
calls "a complex scheme of quotas."
"The report says charter schools are vital, yet it gives access only to a few
children," said Quisenberry.
The findings of the commission were crafted into a bill in late April, and May
brought the House's slim rejection. Supporters of the bill hope it will be
reconsidered later this spring and would like to have a bill on Gov. Engler's
desk by the summer recess in June.