Michigan Lifts ‘Arbitrary’ Charter School Cap

Published December 27, 2011

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a bill to remove the cap on university-chartered public schools and allow community colleges to authorize charters beyond their districts. Senate Bill 618 is part of a long-term effort to shift to a performance-based educational system that includes recent teacher tenure reforms.

Now Public Act 277, the law also requires charters to make contracts public and comply with state education accountability requirements.

“Charter schools play a critical role in providing Michigan students and parents with educational options,” Snyder said in a press statement. “This reform gives families who are trapped in failing schools more freedom to take control of their future.”

The state has 225 charter schools, and approximately 12,000 students are on charter wait lists. The new legislation, passed Dec. 15, will gradually lift the cap of 150 schools chartered by public universities. Since the cap was reached in 1999, advocates have pushed for its removal, but strong opposition from public school advocacy groups—especially those affiliated with teachers unions—had thwarted previous attempts at change.

‘Charter Schools Are Competition’
Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair Township) said public universities tend to charter the highest-quality schools nationally, which is why Michigan’s “arbitrary” cap has been so difficult to lift.

“They are the very best and probably represent the greatest threat,” Pavlov said. “Superintendents and school board men are very powerful. They generate an enormous amount of political power. Charter schools are competition.”

Traditional public schools’ monopoly has motivated them to vehemently oppose charter schools, says Gary Wolfram, a political economy professor at Hillsdale College who has studied Michigan charter schools.

“The existing public school system has an incentive to say they do not want competition. If someone can take students and funding away, they might have to get better. They might have to find ways to reduce their cost. [Existing public schools] want to protect their revenue source,” Wolfram said.

With more competition from charter schools, traditional schools will have to improve to avoid losing students to charters, he said.

Attracting Needy Students
State Rep. Mike Calton (R-Nashville) is one of five House Republicans who voted no on the bill. He says he does not think charter schools provide good education, citing 15 years of experience on a school board and years of dealing with charters.

“What I have seen is two charter schools that were not superior or unique. I’m all for uncapping charter schools if they are superior or unique,” Calton said. “$7,000 follows every child that goes to a charter school. Every dollar the charter gets would have gone to the public schools.”

Wolfram counters that by noting educators and legislators should expect poorer initial results from charter schools than from traditional public schools because charters tend to attract lower-quality students.

“If your child is doing well, why would you send them away? If your child is not doing well, then you are more likely to send your kid to this new charter school,” Wolfram said.

Because charters are relatively new, Wolfram notes, a student’s education will have come largely from other schools. In a paper for the Journal of School Choice, Wolfram studied various Michigan charter schools and found their students outperformed traditional public school students on standardized tests after two years at charter schools.

Centralization ‘Incredibly Misguided’
Those who oppose charter schools often take a “snapshot” of standardized test scores without recognizing most charters serve students from poorer families, agreed Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

“Charter schools in Michigan serve low-income homes and racial minorities. Lost in the debate is that a lot are dedicated to underserved students,” Van Beek said.

Increasing school choice is a significant benefit of expanding charter schools, he said. Parents can send their children to schools other than those assigned simply by ZIP code.

“It is incredibly misguided to think that we in Lansing or some centralized organization can provide the best education for every kid in the state of Michigan,” Van Beek said.