Michigan Governor, Union Split on Charter Schools

Published November 1, 2005

In early October, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) was preparing for a court battle over charter schools with a Native American community college and several state officials including Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), whom the organization had endorsed in her successful 2002 gubernatorial bid.

At issue is whether a Native American community college can authorize charter schools, known as public school academies in Michigan. A hearing date had not been set at press time, but attorneys on both sides expected one at any time.

On February 3, the MEA filed suit in Ingham County Circuit Court seeking to shut down the charter schools authorized by the Bay Mills Community College (BMCC), headquartered in Brimley, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. BMCC is the only tribally operated and accredited community college in the state.

‘Union Monopoly’ Protection

Michigan’s law governing charter schools, enacted in 1994, allows public colleges and universities as well as local school districts to authorize charter schools. The law states colleges and universities can operate charters in the district they serve–usually the immediate geographic vicinity around the college. The law limits the total number of charter schools universities can operate statewide to 150, a limit that has been reached, but it does not place a cap on the number of charter schools community colleges can establish.

The law also allows charter school teachers to opt out of joining the MEA–a possible catalyst for the current lawsuit, said Brian Carpenter, an independent education analyst in Midland, Michigan. “I think this [lawsuit] is Union Monopoly 101,” said Carpenter. “[The MEA] will go to any length to protect its $50 million monopoly on teacher membership.”

Legal Jurisdiction

In December 2000, BMCC began approving charter schools throughout the state because administrators believed the school’s status as a tribally controlled community college meant its jurisdiction extended statewide.

In 2001, six state representatives asked then-Attorney General Granholm to issue an advisory opinion on the legality of BMCC authorizing charter schools outside of its immediate vicinity. Granholm concluded in September 2001 that BMCC could operate charter schools throughout the state because Article XI of the BMCC’s charter states “the District for the BMCC shall consist of the State of Michigan.”

At press time, Granholm had not issued a statement on the current MEA lawsuit.

The MEA suit asserts the state superintendent of education, the state treasurer, and the departments of education and treasury have engaged in “unconstitutional and/or illegal expenditures of state funds which jeopardizes the continued integrity and viability of Michigan’s system of public education.”

“Regarding these particular questions, they’ve already been asked and answered,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “The last two attorneys general have understood the law to allow Bay Mills to authorize charters.”

Serving Low-Income, Minorities

The MEA lawsuit also asserts the management contracts used by the school are not legitimate because private companies manage the schools–which, in the union’s view, means the BMCC has “illegally delegated its oversight responsibility to a private corporation” and is not close enough to have meaningful oversight of the schools because 12 different firms manage the BMCC’s 31 charter schools. The MEA also alleges other technical violations regarding procedures for appointment and removal of board members.

The BMCC’s charter schools enroll about 8,000 students, mostly in the Detroit area. The lawsuit has not affected their enrollment for the 2005-06 academic year. According to the BMCC, half its students belong to minority groups, and half are classified as low-income. Statewide, 220 charter schools enroll about 85,000 students.

“The MEA presents an image of caring about kids, but how would summarily closing schools serving 8,000 students serve [kids]?” said Ryan Olson, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Whether the MEA likes it or not, its approach is a betrayal of children.”

“This lawsuit is frivolous and a ridiculous waste of money. We think this is a political game the MEA is playing,” Quisenberry said. “We are concerned that a judge might just rule in the MEA’s favor, but we’re confident that [BMCC’s charters] will be upheld, even if we have to go to the Michigan Supreme Court.”

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College.

For more information …

For more information about the legal tactics used by the Michigan Education Association, see “MEA Shouldn’t Squelch Speech,” Intellectual Ammunition, Winter 2003, http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=11646.

“The Michigan Education Association Tries to Take the ‘Free’ Out of ‘Free Speech,'” Institute for Justice Litigation Backgrounder, January 2003, http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=11393.