MEA Goes Nuclear in Charter School Suit

(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.

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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 education official.

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.