Michigan Charter Schools: Legislature Continues Debate Over For-Profits

Legislator Plays Ball Against For-Profit Charter Schools

As a bill that would lift the cap on Michigan's charter schools is back up for debate in the state House this week, one lawmaker is trying to ensure that for-profit schools are not included in that expansion.

Senate Bill 618 narrowly passed the Senate 20 to 18 in October, with some Republicans siding with Democrats to oppose it. Critics say it includes too few quality controls and opens the state up to more underperforming charter school operators, some of which are just out to make a quick buck.

State Sen. Rebekah Warren is proposing a constitutional amendment that would ban for-profit charter operators from opening schools in Michigan. Warren offered a similar measure as an amendment to SB 618, but it did not pass. So now, she says, she's appealing to the larger legislature and amendment process to ensure that any charter school expansion excludes for-profit operators.

"It doesn't even limit the number of charter schools in existence," Warren said of her proposed amendment. "What it does do is say they have to operate like our public schools do -- as a nonprofit."

Warren was joined by state Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood in announcing the amendment Tuesday, and said she had garnered 10 cosponsors in the state legislature.

Some 80 percent of Michigan's 225 charter schools are currently run by for-profit companies, while nationally the figure is close to 30 percent. In addition to opening the field for more charters, SB 618 would also lift restrictions on out-of-state charter operators, many of which are for-profit.

Several education reform groups are asking the House to add quality control measures to the charter bill that would affect all operators, both for-profit and nonprofit. The groups include Michigan Democrats for Education Reform, Progressives for Quality Public Schools, StudentsFirst and the Education Trust. They distributed a letter Monday encouraging House members to amend SB 618.

"Should existing charter authorizers and operators who have a portfolio of schools that consistently perform at horribly low levels ... deserve to automatically expand their number of schools without any accountability or responsibility?" the letter's authors wrote. "The answer, we believe, is obvious: Absolutely not."

Excellent Schools Detroit, a reform coalition, has criticized the measure and made statements showing the limited success of charter schools in Michigan. Only three of the nine charter operators in the state have a majority of schools performing above the 25th percentile, according to the group.

That lack of performance -- and SB 618's lack of quality protections -- pushed her amendment forward, Warren said.

"It would be a different conversation if for-profit schools could point to that they were doing wonderful things in classroom," she said. "But the data shows in Michigan right now, only 17 percent of our charter schools perform better than public schools. All the rest perform the same or less well."

A widely cited 2009 Stanford study found that 17 percent of charter schools nationally out-performed traditional public schools, while 36 percent were worse. Michigan was not included in that study.

State Sen. Phil Pavlov, who chairs the Senate's education committee, said Warren's proposal has "nothing to do" with SB 618. Pavlov said he hadn't seen the language in Warren's amendment, so he could not comment on it directly, but he did address for-profit charters and public education.

"If you took a look at what for-profit is, you would see traditional public schools are operating at nice profit," Pavlov said. He also indicated that a ban on profits in public education would affect auxiliary industries.

"I would just suggest that in education in the state of Michigan -- where $18 billion trades hands every year -- I would suggest that there is a lot of profit being made on many levels. Would that profit [amendment] also go to include the textbook distributors? Or the school bus parts company?" Pavlov asked.

He said he did not see Warren's amendment as something he would support, adding, "Capitalism is alive and well in Michigan."

The Michigan House's education committee is chaired by Rep. Tom McMillin (R), who was appointed committee chair after Rep. Paul Scott was recalled earlier this month thanks to a push by the state teachers' union. McMillin is expected to support the charter school bill.

Six Senate Republicans voted against SB 618, but Warren said she did not yet know whether her for-profit charter ban amendment would receive bipartisan support.

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