Michigan Legislators Weigh Parent Trigger, Charter Expansion

Published September 14, 2011

Parents and teachers in Michigan would have the power to petition their school district to convert a failing public school into an independent charter under a bill pending in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

The Parent Empowerment Education Reform package is a set of seven bills introduced September 7. It would establish a Parent Trigger inspired by California’s landmark law, eliminate the current cap of 150 university-sponsored charter schools and two cyber charter schools statewide, and require school districts to offer open seats to students from other districts.

“This is giving choices and power to parents and students across the state to make their own decisions on what’s best for their education,” said state Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair), lead sponsor of the parent empowerment legislation and chairman of the Senate’s education committee.

Almost 100 Schools Eligible
Cosponsors of the reform package include Sens. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton), Judy Emmons (R-Sheridan), Geoff Hansen (R-Hart), and David Robertson (R-Grand Blanc).

“I’ve always believed our education policy should empower parents,” said Robertson, adding the option to convert to a charter would be available only “under very limited circumstances” in “our chronically poorly performing schools.”

Michigan state education officials in August released the annual list of lowest performing schools, naming 98 that would qualify for conversion using the Parent Trigger.

Bill Boosts Charters
In the past decade, charter school proponents have struggled under the cap and other regulations, said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

“The school board gets first dibs at authorizing the charter, but if the board denies it, other authorizers can charter the new school,” Van Beek explained. “The other bills expand the number of charter schools by eliminating a cap on the number authorized by public universities.”

Van Beek says these new “conversion schools,” as they would be known, could be authorized by community colleges, public universities, intermediate school districts, or local school districts.

Charter-Only Trigger
The Michigan legislation differs from California’s landmark Parent Trigger law in key respects, Van Beek said.

Under the California law, if at least half of the eligible parents at a failing school sign a petition, the school district must adopt one of several reform strategies: Shut down the school, restart it as a charter, or adopt one of three other models of reform set forth by federal Race to the Top regulations.

Michigan’s law would allow 51 percent of parents, teachers, or a combination of the two to petition, but only for a new charter school.

“The Parent Trigger portion of this package of bills is not as significant as the charter school expansion provisions,” Van Beek said.

“If these bills pass, Michigan would likely have one of the strongest charter school bills in the country, with no caps on enrollment or number of schools, a wide range of experienced authorizers, and no limitations on online charter schools either.”

‘Significant Reform’
Van Beek says the fact the new reforms were introduced in the Senate is significant.

“With the other school reforms that were made in the previous session, such as tenure reform, teacher evaluations, and so forth, the Senate was watering down House bills,” Van Beek said. “This is a pretty solid package of bills originating in the Senate, and if they get out of the Senate, the House is likely to pass them or even strengthen them.”

The reforms have the backing of Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who outlined similar proposals at an education policy speech in April, and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe).

Union ‘Predictably’ Opposed
The American Federation of Teachers-Michigan issued a boilerplate denunciation of the reform proposal.

“These proposals are not rooted in research about what works to increase student learning, but in partisan ideology,” AFT-Michigan President David Hecker said in a statement.

Van Beek said the union’s opposition was predictable, and the momentum behind the reforms is strong.

“Michigan was a leader in the charter school movement in the early 1990s, and we might very well become the leader again two decades later,” he said.