New charter plan expected

First charter bill fails in House, legislature likely to revisit this spring

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 weeks.

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.