On Sept. 30 the Michigan Civil Rights Commission released a report designed to highlight and address the unfair distribution of educational opportunities. “An adequate education is a civil right and it belongs to every child among us,” the report declares, before ironically advocating that some lesser-funded schools serving more black and brown children should be further shortchanged.
The commission calls for addressing what it calls “cut-throat competition” among schools over a shrinking number of students. Its proposal calls for taking away one-fourth of the funds that follow students to a public school of their choice and leaving it with the district where they live, even if that district could not serve those students well. If policymakers follow this recommendation, it would mean all charter school students get state per-pupil funding at 75% of the rate of their peers. And that’s just one source of revenue for schools. When other funding sources are considered, the state’s charters, on average, already receive 20% less per pupil than conventional districts do.
If the commission were arguing for shifting resources to help historically disadvantaged groups, that would be one thing. But Michigan’s underfunded charters play an important role in serving those same students. They educate one in 10 of the state’s public school students. A higher percentage of their students are minority students than in conventional districts (67% versus 31%), and their students are more likely to come from low-income households (76% versus 48%). Charters educate large shares of students in Detroit and Flint, two large majority-minority cities.
The outrageous recommendation prompted Buzz Thomas, a former Democratic state legislative leader, to respond in an open letter: “It boggles the mind that the Michigan Civil Rights Commission just adopted a report that tells half the students in Detroit and Flint that they’re only worth three-quarters of a person.”
The commission did not make its flawed case in haste. The report came out two-and-a-half years after its first of five hearings on educational inequities in Michigan. The last hearing occurred in March 2019, a full year before the pandemic began.
In October 2018, the Mackinac Center sent an official letter to the commission that both highlighted charter school demographics and drew attention to comments made by charter school parents from our survey earlier that year. Those parents spoke of leaving behind schools where their child was a victim of bullying and racism. They praised their new schools for offering better academics or more ethnic diversity. The commission heard firsthand similar opinions from charter school parents and other supporters during its hearing.
The report not only gave these perspectives short shrift, but it also painted a grossly inaccurate picture of charter schools. A little bit of curiosity and interest in sharing a true story would have prevented numerous errors and key omissions, starting with the failure to point out that charter schools exist because parents actively choose them.
The report steers wildly around this obvious point with a definition of charter schools as “institutions set up within school districts[,] typically to serve a special set of students such as those interested in a magnate [sic] program or who have been expelled from other schools.”
The commission also asserts that public school academies operate under "different rules,” and that the state “provides taxpayer money to charter schools without requiring them to follow state laws regarding special education, testing and licensing." Presumably, licensing refers to teacher certification. A quick review of the Michigan Department of Education’s guidance on charter schools shows the report’s claim to be utterly false on all counts.
To ignore the role of parental choice and make misleading statements about charter school operations leads to another off-base description: “Charter schools [are] siphoning off public tax money from the traditional school system.” This merely demonstrates a preoccupation with directing more funds to school districts that have local taxing authority, elected boards and mandatory bargaining with teacher unions. After all, these are the essential legal features that distinguish conventional public schools from charter public schools.
Beyond all the problems the report contains, the timing of its release is particularly head-scratching. The pandemic has only increased the number of families who are pursuing different educational solutions that meet their children’s diverse needs, as the district system struggles to keep up. These families should not be patronized with misguided rhetoric and proposals.
Educational opportunity is not just here to stay, it’s on the advance. Trying to force a retreat from choice may appeal to those who run the system we know. But in doing this in the name of civil rights, the commission’s wrong approach would harm the students who need help the most.
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