Two Democrats, Sens. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, and Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, announced this week that they would introduce a constitutional amendment to ban schools operated by for-profit entities in Michigan.
“Our education institutions should not be guided by a mission statement focused on making a profit,” Sen. Warren said. “Michigan's children deserve to receive an education focused on their success and empowerment – a mission with no room for profits and corporate management.”
In response, Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, contrasted the Warren-Hopgood resolution, which targets groups that manage charter schools, with the fact that numerous for-profit entities operate within the state's education system.
“We have an $18 billion education budget,” Sen. Pavlov said. “I want to see how they draft this. Are they going to go all the way down to the people who sell textbooks, service school buses and handle food?”
A super-majority, or two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate, are required for adoption of constitutional amendments, which if adopted, would then go on a statewide ballot. But even if only a simple majority vote was required for passage, the “Warren-Hopgood resolution” would likely have no realistic chance of being approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Capitol Confidential pointed this out to Sen. Warren and asked if the eventual goal might be to try to place the measure on the statewide ballot through a petition drive.
“It's always good to be hopeful . . . but I'm not a Pollyanna,” she said in reference to the dismal prospect the resolution faces. “But we certainly would have another way of doing it through petitions.”
The most obvious entity that might be willing to pursue the issue in a petition drive, and afford the price tag, would be the Michigan Education Association. It would be difficult to assess at this time whether such an effort is in the offing.
What is clear is that the Warren-Hopgood resolution is part of the MEA's response to Republican steps to remove the state's longstanding charter school cap. This was apparent from the news release circulated at the Capitol press conference announcing the resolution.
“In October, Senate Republicans pushed legislation that would remove Michigan's cap on charter schools, essentially opening the doors to business run, for-profit schools and increased privatization of teachers and school workers,” the news release stated.
The backdrop to the measure is also revealing. Sen. Warren recently hosted a town hall meeting at Washtenaw Community College focusing on the expansion of charter schools and cyber schools at which and MEA Uniserv director Jim Berryman was a participant.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, described the Warren-Hopgood Resolution as “an unfortunate distraction.”
“They're announcing this in the midst of an academic crisis,” Quisenberry said. “About one-third of the students that graduate from Michigan's public schools aren't ready for the 21st century. But, instead of coming up with solutions to the real problems we face, they're looking at a very narrow strip that probably represents about 7 percent of the students.”
Sen. Warren claimed that four out of five charter schools in Michigan are operated by for-profit education management organizations. She characterized these organizations as “profiting off the backs of our children.”
Quisenberry said that Sen. Warren was wrong about that statistic and wrong in regard to the premise behind her proposed resolution.
“I think they are misinterpreting how many of these schools are managed, as opposed to how many have managers,” Quisenberry said. “Basically about 80 percent have some kind of managing entity. Of that, maybe two-thirds might be considered for-profit.”
According to Sen. Warren, only 17 percent of charter schools out-perform regular public schools.
“It might be different if charter schools were innovative and getting the best test scores,” she said. “Instead we're seeing these for-profit companies come in opportunistically. Many aren't even offering full K-12 education”
In response to a reporter's question, Sen. Warren said she did not have “any specific data” on hand to back up her statements on charter schools. She did, however, say that her resolution would only involve K-12 public schools, not private schools.
Sen. Morris Hood III, D-Detroit, was in the audience at the press conference where the resolution was announced and said he wasn't part of the press conference, but that he would be supportive of the resolution.
“I think it's important to know that people aren't making money off of our kids,” Sen. Hood said. “At the very least, if someone makes money in the system, we need to make sure they have accountability.”
Meanwhile, Quisenberry said that charter schools in Michigan are held accountable and reiterated his stance that the proposed amendment was off-target.
“The bottom line is that all public schools are held accountable,” Quisenberry said. “But, overall, in Michigan public education is a multi-million dollar industry. Many organizations, service providers and other people receive profits from their involvement with it. The focus of this (resolution) is very, very narrow.”
Placing a measure on a statewide ballot to force political opponents to spend money to prevent its passage, or drive up base Democratic or Republican voter turnout, would not be a new idea. However, it's far from clear that banning for-profit schools would be the sort of populist issue to serve such a purpose. Instead, the measure might simply be a case of saber-rattling in the ongoing battle between the Legislature and the MEA.
Sen. Hopgood's response to the point that the measure had no chance of passing in the Legislature differed from that of Sen. Warren. He suggested the reason behind the resolution was just to bring the issue to light.