News Story

The Republicans Who Blocked Charter School Choice

Nearly a decade after Gov. Engler failed, Gov. Snyder has GOP smelling victory on charter school choice expansion

Before the creation of charter public schools in 1994, mere geography determined the education of Michigan’s public school pupils. Much like buying boots in the old Soviet Empire, parental choice was limited to accepting what the bureaucrats in the local education monopoly offered, or fleeing with the family across the border to another district (if you could afford it). Even today, a majority of charters have a wait list, and some must conduct lotteries to determine which parents get a choice over who teaches their kids. For last school year, one such lottery was used because a district had just 26 openings for 556 applicants.

Many parents who could not place their students in charter schools this year can thank three former Michigan lawmakers for their disappointment: State Reps. Pan Godchaux, R-Birmingham; Ron Jelinek, R-Three Oaks; and Mike Pumford, R-Newaygo. In 1999 and again in 2002, there were two attempts to increase the number of charters allowed under law. These votes took place in two different legislative sessions and with two slightly different crews of lawmakers, but in both instances these three politicians provided crucial votes against lifting the most substantial cap on charter growth.

It remains in place to this day.

This year, the chair of the Michigan Senate’s Education Committee, Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, has introduced Senate Bill 618. It would eliminate the charter cap, effectively letting all of Michigan’s public universities and community colleges fully participate and compete with each other and conventional school districts in the effort to educate Michigan’s K-12 schoolchildren. Yet even now it is not clear that the Republican majorities in the Michigan House and Senate can be counted on to get the job done and deliver a long-awaited lifting of the cap to a Republican governor for his signature.

A 150-school limit on the number of university-sponsored charters had already been reached by 1999, and Central Michigan University’s Center for Charter Schools was ready — both then and now — to add additional schools to meet the swelling demand from parents.

Back in 1999, Dan Quisenberry, director of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, told the Gongwer News Service that there was already a backlog of 100 groups seeking to partner with universities to create charters, but unable to do so because of the cap. He would later tell the MIRS Capitol Capsule newsletter that “60,000 parents” were also waiting for schooling options. For this reason, he was calling for the cap to be eliminated entirely, rather than raised, arguing that the demand for schools by parents demonstrated that the state was poorly placed to referee the “appropriate” number of charters needed.

But the Michigan House, despite a 58-52 GOP majority, did not have the votes to remove the cap entirely. Instead, a proposal to increase the cap from 150 to 225 over three years was put forth. With the Michigan Senate in GOP hands and supportive of the proposal, then-Gov. John Engler deemed raising the cap to be his top priority for that session of the Legislature.

To Engler’s chagrin, the bill would be effectively killed at the end of 1999 and would never pass the House that session. Credit for wiping it out was laid at the feet of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest public school employee union, and its influence over a half dozen House Republicans.

“In addition to keeping Democrat opposition in line, six House GOP holdouts that ground the charter school legislation to its demise were all endorsed by the MEA,” reported MIRS on Dec 8, 1999. “During the 1998 election, the teachers’ union made efforts to work with more Republican candidates.”

It was noted that the MEA spent resources and recommendations on a total of 11 Republicans that election cycle.

“Maybe the MEA does own them,” a spokesman for Gov. Engler said to Gongwer, expressing frustration that his boss’ top priority had been stymied by the union’s ability to elect the like-minded Republicans who opposed school choice.

“You’ve got a handful of legislators that are willing to put politics ahead of (charter school) parents,” Quisenberry told  Gongwer. “It’s a year’s delay in a child’s education. It’s a huge setback for them.”

As is often the case when a bill is going to fail, no record was kept of the vote tally. But amongst the six Republicans reported to have helped shoot down the bill by refusing to vote for it were Reps. Godchaux, Pumford and Jelinek.

These names would come up again. Two and a half years later, Gov. Engler made another try at lifting the cap. This time, the situation had changed considerably regarding the MEA.

MIRS explained on May 1, 2002:

“Then last September the dynamics of the situation changed when Attorney General Jennifer Granholm issued an opinion that Bay Mills Community College, due to its special status as a Native American institution, was basically not subject to charter cap and could potentially establish an unlimited number of charter schools. The Bay Mills situation prompted the MEA to look for a compromise.”

That compromise, an amended version of 2001 House Bill 4800, would have allowed for just 55 new charters to be created through 2007. But the big teachers’ union was willing to give on this small increase in exchange for two other features of the bill: A cap on the number of charters that Bay Mills Community College could authorize and a slew of regulations that would be imposed upon both new and existing charters. For their part, the charter school community and the governor were uneasy about the restrictions and tiny increase in the cap, but eager to get the new charters. The proposal had the combined support of the former enemies from 1999: The MEA, the charter community and the governor were all on board.

But the Michigan AFL-CIO, which has local unions in some Michigan public schools, did not believe that Bay Mills would use the legal loophole to start minting new charter schools. And in hindsight, this prediction turned out to be accurate. Correctly guessing that there was no competitive threat to the conventional education monopoly from Bay Mills, the AFL-CIO saw no reason to accept any increase in the charter cap. They opposed the HB 4800 compromise and, according to MIRS, may have even threatened some Democrats with primary election challengers if they voted for it.

If there was a threat of an election challenge, then it worked. All but one Democrat in the House opposed the compromise. The Republican leadership in the House kept the voting board open for 3.5 hours on May 1, seeking to round up the votes needed to pass the proposal. But they came up one vote short.

This time, five Republicans voted with most of the Democrats to oppose the compromise. Any one of them could have provided the final vote necessary to increase the charter school cap and increase educational choices for Michigan parents. Once again, as with the vote in 1999 with a slightly different crew of lawmakers, three of the five “no” votes were Reps. Godchaux, Pumford and Jelinek.

Today, Republicans hold a 63-46 advantage in the Michigan House, a 26-12 advantage in the Senate, and Gov. Rick Snyder has said he is in favor of a major increase in the number of charters allowed in Michigan.

The MEA has long since returned to general opposition to lifting the charter cap. On the union’s website for Sept. 8, 2011, Sen. Pavlov’s bill to eliminate the cap was listed as one of several “anti-public education” bills being advanced by the Michigan Senate.

However, unlike 1999 and 2002, two things have changed that may lead to more united and perhaps unanimous Republican support:

  1. Fewer Republicans received MEA recommendations during the 2010 election — just four GOP state representatives and two senators. Even if each of them voted down charter expansion, there would still be substantial majorities left to pass a bill without any Democrat support. This is way down from 11 of 43 House Republicans receiving MEA recommendations as recently as the 2008 election.
  1. After two decades of playing this “inside baseball” accommodation strategy of courting a few Republicans to go along with its base support amongst Democrat lawmakers, the MEA union bosses decided this year to participate in recall elections against Republican lawmakers who have voted for other school reforms. The reaction to this from GOP leadership at the state capitol appears to be to pursue education reforms that are more in line with a more Republican philosophy, without regard for the concerns of the union bosses — and often in direct contradiction to what the MEA would prefer.

For the third time in 12 years, and in the face of ongoing union hostility, continued demand for charter expansion has prompted a Republican governor with a GOP-led Legislature to place expansion of parental choice at the top of his agenda. Reps. Godchaux, Pumford and Jelinek, not to mention all of the other lawmakers who joined with them to oppose one or the other of those earlier proposals, have all retired from the Legislature due to term limits. It remains to be seen whether there will be comparable or even crippling holdouts in the GOP caucuses in 2011 when it comes to Republican support for more parental choice in schooling.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.