(A version of the following
article was originally published in
The Grand Rapids Press on Aug. 6, 2005.)
Gov. Jennifer Granholm made headlines this month by
leveling charges of treason at a state representative for criticizing her
economic proposals in The Wall Street Journal, but she may soon be adding
someone new to her enemies list: the Michigan Education Association. A lawsuit
filed earlier this year by the union’s attorneys directly challenges the
judgment of erstwhile Attorney General Jennifer Granholm for filing an opinion
that effectively upheld Bay Mills Community College’s authority to establish
charter schools statewide. But if this be treason, it is the least of the
betrayals in this story.
Bay Mills Community College is run by the Bay Mills Native
American community. The college has established charter schools using a state
law that allows public universities, community colleges and intermediate school
districts to authorize such schools. All Michigan charter schools, including
those authorized by Bay Mills, are public schools that receive government funds
based on their enrollment, but do not receive public money for buildings and
other capital investments.
Bay Mills Community College’s ability to establish charter
schools is challenged in the MEA lawsuit, and that authority has come under
scrutiny before. In 2001, six state representatives requested an opinion from
then-Attorney General Granholm concerning Bay Mills Community College’s practice
of authorizing schools throughout the state, not just near the Bay Mills
reservation. Granholm supported the legality of the college’s actions by finding
that the boundaries of the college’s chartering authority extend throughout the
"district" defined in the college’s formal charter from the Bay Mills tribe.
Though Granholm did not explicitly say so, Article 11 of that charter clearly
defines the college’s district as the "State of Michigan."
But in its suit, the MEA charges that her opinion was
"stated without legal citation" and that the college is not a legitimate
authorizer of charter schools outside the Bay Mills reservation — or anywhere
else, for that matter. This allegation calls into question the competence of the
state’s former lead counsel and clashes with its general political alignment
with the governor, whom MEA President Luigi Battaglieri has recently praised as
someone who "understands the issues of the people."
But consider, too, the larger statement the MEA is making
with this suit. The union also alleges that Bay Mills has illegally contracted
with an outside firm to perform its oversight responsibilities; that the
community college board members are not publicly elected or appointed; and that
members of the community college’s board cannot be removed by the state’s top
Some of these allegations may sound serious, but they
should be taken with a grain of salt. Gov. Granholm is not the only state
official to have reviewed the schools’ legitimacy; the state Department of
Education has repeatedly authorized funding the schools. The state Legislature,
too, has not restrained the college and has continued to finance the schools.
Thus, in the unlikely event that some technical fault is
found, that technicality would require a slight course correction — not closing
the schools altogether. The many state officials who have signed off on the
schools in the past are not likely to have coordinated a conspiracy to defraud
the public on behalf of phony charter schools.
And yet the MEA’s lawsuit repeatedly calls for "relief" in
the form of ending Bay Mills’ chartering authority and shutting off the schools’
funding. Asking for the harshest possible remedy is not uncommon in legal
circles, but this draconian approach is telling.
The MEA burnishes a public image of caring about kids, and
it even states on its Web site that it will "support the development of
successful, empowered students." How would summarily closing 30 schools that
serve more than 8,000 children "empower" and "develop" students if, for
instance, some technical provision of the contract for oversight were in error?
If that contract needs adjustment, a reasonable remedy would simply require the
college to bring its oversight contract into compliance with the law. Asking the
court to close the schools is a nuclear option that would gratuitously prevent
students and their families from choosing the schools they prefer.
In the past the union has stated that it supports charter
schools, but one can only point out that its scorched-earth remedies will, in
addition to dismissing the governor’s opinion, lead inevitably to questions
about its goals. Whether the MEA likes it or not, its approach in this case is a
betrayal of children.
Ryan S. Olson is director of education policy for 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.