Michigan charter school advocates prepare for anticipated Democratic cuts

Traditional public schools lagged significantly behind public charter schools in performance, new data shows.

Updated: December 4, 2022 - 7:57am

Election of Democratic majorities in the Michigan House and Senate is a warning shot for the state’s public charter schools.

The incoming bicameral majorities and reelected Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have already signaled antipathy toward public charter schools. Drawing much of the Democrats’ ire are for-profit education management organizations operating 42% of public charter schools in Detroit alone as of 2021.

Holly Wetzel, director of public relations for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told The Center Square that Whitmer already has supported cutting state aid for public online charter schools and warned the governor could roll back the lift on enrollment caps that former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed into law in 2011.

“It is likely that charter schools will unfortunately continue to face proposed budget decreases, potential closures, and other attacks from Democratic lawmakers this upcoming session,” Wetzel said. “This would be a slap in the face to the nearly 10% of Michigan students who choose to attend charter schools. Charter schools across the state have historically outperformed their neighboring district schools, despite receiving significantly less overall funding.”

The Center Square reported in October that traditional public schools lagged significantly behind public charter schools, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. In a survey conducted last spring by Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group, 64% of Michiganders polled support public charter schools, up 5 percentage points from a similar poll conducted in 2020. Conversely, unfavorable views of PCSs fell to 23% from 25% one year prior.

A second study revealed PCS enrollment increased each year during the three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, while traditional public school enrollment dropped.

“Instead of placing further restrictions on charter schools, lawmakers should be working to ensure that students have access to the fullest range of opportunities,” Wetzel said.

In an email to The Center Square, Michigan Association of Public School Academies President Dan Quisenberry addressed learning losses as a result of lengthy school closures during the pandemic.

“We’re just now starting to realize the full impact that the pandemic had on learning loss, and schools across the state continue to wrestle with a teacher shortage,” Quisenberry said. “Those should be the top priorities for everyone in Lansing. This is no time to be playing politics with kids or serving special-interest groups. Both sides in Lansing need to work together to do what’s best for kids. We very much look forward to working with them.”

Public charter schools were introduced to Michigan in 1994, signed into law by Republican Gov. John Engler. By 1997, 100 were operating in the state. Two years later, the 150 limit had been reached. It wasn’t until the fiscal year 2022 budget that the gap between state spending on public charter schools and traditional public schools was closed. Prior to that, charters were funded at the minimal level while traditionals received the maximum.

“Charter schools have always been a bipartisan issue, and we embrace the new political climate in Lansing,” Quisenberry said. “We look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle, helping them realize all the opportunities that charter schools are providing to students in our state.”

Quisenberry added, “Recent polling shows that charter school popularity is very high and growing in Michigan among all groups – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. It’s especially high among minority parents. I think everyone in Lansing is looking at the same polls we are.”

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