State Rep: 'Should we only assure quality education by zip code?'
Jennifer Jarosz is one of several parents in St. Helen, a small, rural community in Roscommon County, who wants to be able to place her children in a charter public school. She testified Dec. 1 in front of the Michigan House Education Committee. But currently the state's charter cap is blocking the schoolhouse door.
"Our community is surrounded by two school districts with an average graduation rate of 75 percent,” Jarosz told the committee. "Educationally we are already an under-served community and it is only going to get worse if we are not provided some opportunities for educational alternatives.”
The Michigan Education Association, other teacher unions and some school districts are fighting to keep the cap on Michigan's charter schools.
Senate Bill 618 would eliminate the charter cap and is currently in the state House. The present cap of 150 university-authorized charter public schools has been in place since 1999. According to school choice advocates, Michigan currently has nearly 20,000 families on wait lists to get into charters. Approximately two-thirds of students in the state’s charter public schools are considered “at risk” (poor and/or minority) compared to one-third of students in statewide traditional public schools.
Little more than a decade ago, Gov. John Engler was getting virtually everything he wanted from the state Legislature. One notable exception was lifting the cap on charter schools. Two attempts resulted in failure with the help of three House Republicans.
The Michigan House will consider the issue again next week. But, like before, there are indications that the attempt to eliminate the charter cap might be running into the same problems. House Republicans are struggling to get the votes to eliminate the limit on charter schools.
“It's time to make giving kids a chance the priority instead of propping up institutions,” said House Appropriations Committee Chair Chuck Moss, R-Birmingham. “[T]here are a lot of public schools in Michigan that do a great job. But what about the communities where kids have been trapped in failing schools for generations?
“Families have to be given the benefit of choice,” Moss continued. “Institutions change all of the time, they have to. What might have worked 40 years ago doesn't work anymore. We need competition in education. And when that happens, I believe Michigan schools will be up to the challenge.”
Rep. Eric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, voted for lifting the cap when the bill was in committee. He said he plans on voting for it again on the House floor because he believes Michigan's residents should have educational options.
“It's about empowering parents and giving them a choice,” Nesbitt said. “This is a critical vote for Michigan students.”
Charters are nonprofit public school academies. Because of the overwhelming demand, they often hold lotteries for students and must accept any who apply, provided they have an opening. They also cost taxpayers less than conventional public schools.
"When parents choose charter schools, taxpayers save on the whole, as they get the same public service for a cost that amounts to about $2,000 less per student on average," said Michael Van Beek, education policy director for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, stresses that lifting the charter cap is something that should be supported by residents all across Michigan.
“In the state’s urban centers, charter schools have found tremendous success, scoring 10-15 percent higher on the MEAP than traditional schools in those areas,” Quisenberry said. “But we’ve seen that school choice is important in every area of the state, because each charter school is filling a specific need for parents and students.”
Rep. Nesbitt has a succinct way of explaining the bottom line.
“Should we only assure quality education by ZIP code?” he asked rhetorically.
Melissa Wiaduck, of Highland, is a parent of three who chose to place her children in a charter school. She recently wrote a letter to her local newspaper.
“I believe Michigan residents, if given a choice, are capable of selecting the right schools for their children. We live in a country with foundations rooted in freedom and choice. The limit of choices in our educational system goes against this ideal. We need to allow excellent charter schools to open and provide opportunities for students in any district. Michigan families deserve a choice in schools for their children. We can do it now with the passage of SB 618.”
According to Quisenberry, charter schools were mainly developed for a common sense reason.
“The traditional schools simply aren’t able to fill every need of every student and every family, which is why we need school choice in every part of the state,” he said. “This isn’t about traditional schools vs. charter schools. This is about giving parents a choice in public education. Sometimes a traditional school is the right choice, and sometimes a charter school is the right choice. But it makes no sense to take all students and put them in a one-size-fits-all box, and it makes no sense to say that parents can only have a limited amount of choice.”