Mainstream newspapers. Democratic politicians. Nonprofits associated with conventional public schools. Even official school district Twitter feeds.
The list seems to grow by the week of interests lining up to denounce an alleged bogeyman that one newspaper editorial claimed is threatening the very existence of public education — charter public schools.
According to charter school supporters, these attacks are not coincidence. The first Michigan charters were launched in 1994, but until recently they were restricted by a cap of 150 on the number that could be authorized (“chartered”) by a state university, the most common method. That changed in 2011, when Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new law eliminating the cap, which was passed despite intense opposition from teachers unions and other interests tied to conventional public school districts.
“The critics are not looking for charters to get better,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project. “They are looking for charters to go away. It is a fairly orchestrated effort.”
As of last fall, there were 298 charter schools in Michigan, employing 11,276 teachers. Just six of these schools are unionized, compared to virtually all conventional public schools. Employees at most of the latter are members of the state’s largest teachers' union, the Michigan Education Association, whose union dues are $635 a year. From the union’s perspective, this competition from charter schools represents about $7.1 million a year just in lost teacher dues, plus more dues money paid by all the other support staff that has been traditionally unionized, such as maintenance, cafeteria and transportation workers.
Charter schools enrolled about 141,000 students in 2013. Given an average Michigan school funding “foundation allowance” of around $7,250 per student, that represents slightly more than $1 billion that might have gone to the conventional school districts with which charters compete for students (and the funding that follows them).
That is the background against which a virtual war has been launched against school choice and charter schools. Even the progressive Michigan Radio recognized what was the root of the conflict when it wrote in July, “Charters don’t have to have local collective bargaining agreements with teacher unions. They don’t pay into the state teacher pension fund. Plus, they’re free from teacher tenure laws. Which, taken together, explain a lot of the controversy and political fighting that have happened around charter schools.”
The latest volley was launched by State Superintendent Mike Flanagan when he announced on Aug. 11 that 11 of Michigan’s 40 charter school authorizers were put “at risk of suspension” by him, jeopardizing their ability to open any future charter schools. Two of the authorizers now "at risk" were recognized by MDE as the best in the state just last year.
While the attacks on the charter schools have been steady, they have come from varied sources.
The Oakland Intermediate School District posted a link on the district’s Twitter account in July comparing charter schools to the subprime mortgage crisis that played a part in the Great Recession of 2008.
Lobbying and trade associations such as the Michigan Association of School Administrators, funded by membership fees paid by conventional school districts, have demonized charters schools by characterizing them as "...profiteers who will be allowed to take taxpayer dollars…"
In November 2013, the Battle Creek Enquirer published an editorial stating, “The people behind the charter school and privatization movement are intent on destroying public schools, and they are succeeding.”
The Detroit Free Press devoted an eight-day series this summer to charter schools, stating that they “receive nearly $1 billion per year in taxpayer money from the state, often with little accountability, transparency or academic achievement." The series has been disputed by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
Charter schools have also been targeted by the Michigan Democratic Party.
In July, the Michigan House Democratic caucus sent out a fundraising flier opposing charter schools. In both the state House and Senate, Democrats have sought to get dozens of bills and amendments passed that would handcuff charter schools, and in some instances terminate them altogether.
On March 20, 2013, Rep. Theresa Abed, D-Grand Ledge, offered an amendment that would have repealed the law authorizing charter schools. On Oct. 6, 2011, Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, offered an amendment to stop charter schools from being run by a for-profit educational management company. Other measures were offered that would increase the cost of running charter schools. On Dec. 14, 2011, Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, offered an amendment to require charter schools to provide bus service if the conventional school district they are located in provides it. These efforts failed.
Documents and research by organizations such as OpenSecrets.org suggest why Democrats would be worried if teachers unions lose membership due to more parents choosing to send their children to charter schools.
The MEA teachers union spent $9.3 million on “political activities and lobbying” in 2013 according to their LM-2 report. Of the 89 political candidates that the MEA recommended be supported in 2014, just seven were Republicans.
But Michigan teachers also pay dues to the National Education Association. The NEA was listed as one of the biggest political spenders in the nation over the last 25 years. According to OpenSecrets.org, the NEA spent $59.7 million from 1989 to 2014 on political campaigns and only 4 percent of that went to the GOP. Union dues fund a political machine that primarily supports Democratic politicians and liberal causes.
Lu Battaglieri, then the president of the MEA, foreshadowed today’s attacks in a 2005 court deposition.
Q: So the more money a public school receives, the more potentially the incomes of your members and the dues that they pay to you increase; correct?
Battaglieri: "I think I might phrase it differently in my own words. The more money that’s taken out of the available pie, out of the $12.5 billion for K-12 education, the more of that money that goes to parochial, sectarian, or illegal schools, the less is available for my members."
Q: To a certain extent, at least, the more money available to K-12 districts, the more money goes into your union’s coffers; correct?
Battaglieri: "The more money coming to K-12, the more is available for all districts to do all of things they spend money on, including my members’ wages and staff salaries."