Lawmakers at odds over expanding for-profit charter schools

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Capital News Service
LANSING—While some lawmakers discuss a bill to allow more charter schools in Michigan, others seek to ban those operated as for-profit enterprises.
A constitutional amendment to ban for-profit charter schools has been proposed by Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, and Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor.
For-profit charter schools shift educational efforts to making money off of children, Hopgood said. “The result will be schools where children are just a means to profitable acts.”
The amendment would allow non-profit charter schools to continue, Warren said.
“It is not a ban on charter schools; it is not even a cap or minimization,” Warren said.  “If those companies are doing such a great job and they want to come in and they want to educate our kids, they can reformat their business model and become non-profit.”
A bill that would lift the cap on charter schools passed the House Education Committee recently and will soon be heard by the whole House. The bill was passed by the Senate in October and received almost unanimous support from Republicans, while opposed by Democrats.
Warren acknowledged that it is unlikely the amendment will pass the Republican legislature, but she plans to pursue a petition drive if it does not.
The current cap allows only 150 charter schools in Michigan. The state is at capacity.
About 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are run by for-profit businesses while the national average is only 30 percent, Warren said. Warren cited a 2010 study of Michigan charter schools conducted by a professor at Western Michigan University.
Her biggest concern is that the proposed bill to lift the cap does not include enough quality control for new charter schools, which could allow schools to cut corners to make money, she said.
The perception is that charter schools are providing a better education than some underperforming public schools, but only 17 percent of charter schools are outperforming public schools, Warren said.
An often-cited 2009 Stanford national study showed that 17 percent of charter schools outperformed public schools, while 36 percent underperformed.
The Michigan Education Association agrees with Warren.
“The cap limits charter schools to ensure they are performing and that their system works,” said Doug Pratt, communication director of the association, which represents over 157,000 public school teachers.
But officials with the Michigan Association of Public School Academies question the push against for-profit schools.
“I am puzzled by their action at a time when we see an academic concern with public schools across Michigan,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the association, which represents charter schools. “It is very narrow and ill-focused. I don’t see solutions or policy recommendations as to what we could do to improve the current system.”
Quisenberry said that he has heard nothing but positive feedback from parents with kids in charter schools. He would like to see the cap on charter schools lifted, regardless of whether or not those schools are run by for-profit businesses.
For-profit charter schools have to meet the same standards as any other school or they can face the risk of closure, Quisenberry said.
“Charter schools have the support of parents across the state and they are succeeding academically,” he said.  “We are capped today so we want to continue to provide parents more choices and an opportunity to work with public schools to innovate education in Michigan in general.”
The Education Trust-Midwest, an education advocacy group based in Ann Arbor, favors more charter schools, but agrees with Warren that the proposed bill to remove the cap doesn’t do enough to ensure a quality education.
“We have some very good public charter schools, and expanding them would be good for Michigan kids,” Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, said in a prepared statement.  “But we also have many very bad charter schools that provide education of horribly low quality.  Expanding those could be seriously harmful to Michigan kids, and continue us on our downward education spiral.”
Despite her concerns, Arellano said that it is refreshing to see lawmakers working toward bettering the education system.
“I’m deeply grateful that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers feel a sense of urgency about improving our public schools,” Arellano said. “For too long, the leaders in our state have lacked any sense of urgency about the task of educational improvement.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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