Commentary
9:10 am
Thu December 1, 2011

Playing politics with charter schools

It seems pretty clear that Republicans are intent on ramming through legislation that will result in a vast expansion of Michigan charter schools. Up to now, there has been a limit on how many could be authorized. Charter schools had to be sanctioned by universities, and no university could charter more than 150 of them.

Yesterday, the House Education Committee approved a bill  removing that cap. New committee chair Tom McMillan pretty much gaveled down any attempt by minority Democrats to amend the bill, with one minor exception.

Whatever your politics, it is obvious that what is going on is ideologically motivated. Monday, one moderate Republican who was thought to oppose this was removed from the committee, and two more Republicans in favor of charter school expansion were added.

You might call that, stacking the deck. Ironically, those against a blanket expansion of charters might have been better off had the Michigan Education Association failed last month in its drive to recall former House Education Chair Paul Scott.

New Chair Tom McMillan's attitude might best be illustrated by his dismissal of an attempt to prevent charter operators with terrible performing schools from opening new ones.

On the other hand, McMillan himself sponsored an amendment that would allow property owners who lease a building to a charter school to not have to pay property taxes into the school aid fund.

Since charter schools get money from the state, the logic of that escapes me. Well, the bill may well be amended, but it seems certain to pass both houses. Last night, I got an anguished e-mail from a woman named Amy Keyser, who belongs to a group called MI-CAPE, which stand for Michigan Citizens for Quality Public Education. She sent me questions one of her members posed when testifying before the House Education Committee:

If the governor truly wants to attract quality charter schools to our state, why is the legislature setting the stage for low-performing schools? Why are they setting kids up for failure by not preventing failing charter companies from opening more schools, asked Birgit McQuiston, a member of the Lake Orion board of education. Those are good questions, and I am sympathetic.

We can still hope that some sensible amendments get added to this bill before final passage - possibly at the governor's insistence.

But for a long time, public school defenders tended to oppose all charters with a kind of knee-jerk mentality which alienated the public. It is hard not to look at the scandal and disaster that is the Detroit Public Schools and not think that something, anything, would be worth a try instead.

This morning I read the most sensible piece on charters I have ever seen, by Tom Watkins, the former state superintendent of schools. He challenged teacher unions to themselves collaborate on creating charter schools that really work, to get ahead of the curve.

He challenged the rest of us to have a sensible attitude and opt for whatever form of public education that best works, regardless of ideology. Then I looked at the date on his piece. He published it sixteen years ago. You have to wonder if we could have headed off some of today's problems, had we been paying attention.