Commentary: Charter Schools, Going too far?

Jun 19, 2012

There something I’d like to ask the Emergency Managers of the school districts in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. Simply, are you sure you know what you are doing?  Have you thought this through, not only from the point of view of your district, but in regards to the future of education and the state of Michigan?

What I am referring to is the decisions by both superintendents to turn their entire districts over to charter school systems. In other words, to essentially privatize education.

Now, there is no doubt that Muskegon Heights is in bad shape financially.

It is running a deficit equivalent to nearly half its revenue, and a few months ago, it actually asked for an emergency manager.

Last week, Don Weatherspoon, the manager Governor Snyder appointed, announced plans to turn  the whole district and its 1,400 students over to a charter  management company.

He then invited companies to apply for the job.  That drew the notice of Casandra Ulbrich, a member of the state board of education. Ulbrich knows education policy. She has a doctorate from Wayne State, serves as a vice president at Macomb Community College, and is a former congressional aide. Yesterday, she told me she thought this was potentially illegal. Schools have two main sources of funding in Michigan since we passed Proposal A 18 years ago.

They get a per-pupil cash grant from the state, but they also get money from property tax millages levied in the district.

Ulbrich told me that while charter schools are eligible to receive the per-pupil foundation grant from the state, it is illegal for them to collect property tax revenue. “That’s why charters pay their teachers so little," she told me. When she raised this issue last week, somebody noted that the Muskegon Heights district will continue to exist and collect taxes. So, was this a hint that the district might find a way to pass that money on to the charters?

Ulbrich thinks this is a clear run around the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. But she was pooh-poohed by a spokesman for the governor, who said, “this is a unique situation.” Well, it didn’t remain unique for long.

Yesterday, the Highland Park district announced plans to turn its schools over to a charter management company. Highland Park is also under an emergency manager, and its finances are in even worse shape than Muskegon Heights.

This could solve some of both districts’ short-term money problems. But I think we are missing something: the students. School districts weren’t set up as profit centers, but to serve the people who will inherit and run our society. So far, only two charter companies have applied to run Muskegon Heights.

Both have schools with abysmal academic records.  I think, as a society, we are making two serious mistakes here. We are acting as though education was supposed to be a profit center. Worse, we are forgetting our obligation to our students. When Proposal A was passed, Michigan voters turned over ultimate responsibility for education to the state.

Now, the state needs to step up and see that students in Muskegon Heights, Highland Park and everywhere else get the best education possible, no matter what.

Otherwise, we are failing our future.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.