News Story

Cap on Charter Public Schools Eliminated

Five House Republicans and four Senate Republicans vote 'no'

Efforts to get rid of the arbitrary 150-school cap on charter public schools dates back to the mid 1990s. Attempts by former Gov. John Engler to get the cap lifted were twice frustrated by a handful of Republicans. This was followed by eight years under Gov. Jennifer Granholm, during which there was no opportunity to lift the cap.

This time, the end result was different.

Late Wednesday night, the state House passed Senate Bill 618 by a 58-49 tally. The legislation essentially eliminates the cap on charter schools in Michigan.

Five House Republicans joined all but one Democrat in voting against bill. The “no” voting members of the GOP caucus were: Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, Rep. Paul Muxlow, R-Brown City, Rep. Phil Potvin, R-Cadillac, and Rep. Sharon Tyler, R-Niles.

Michael Van Beek, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center, praised passage of the measure as a “leap forward.”

“Pending a likely signature from the governor, the House’s action to remove the cap on university-authorized charter schools was historic, as this arbitrary limit has denied countless Michigan parents for more than a decade the right to choose the best school for their kids,” Van Beek said. “It’s a tremendous leap forward in enabling more parents to take control of their children’s educational opportunities.”

The core issue behind lifting the cap is giving parents and students a choice. That was the theme most Republicans repeatedly returned to during the long floor debate prior to the vote being taken.

“We need educational options for all parents and their children; not just for the privileged few,” said Rep. Margaret O'Brien, R-Portage. “An environment that works for one child may not work for another.”

At the end of the floor debate, House Education Committee Chair Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, summed up the argument for lifting the cap.

“What this legislation is really about is hope,” McMillin said. “It's about giving hope to thousands of kids who are on waiting lists for charter schools.”

Democrats, who have long sided with teachers union on this issue, attempted to derail or dilute the legislation with 24 amendments – but each was defeated. The floor debate was lengthy, primarily because so many Democrats spoke against the legislation.

“Of the 255 charter schools in Michigan, 75 percent are in the bottom 50 percent in academic performance,” said Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright, D-Muskegon.

Charter school supporters, however, argued that the key question is whether a student's individual performance improves after switching to a charter school. Education experts believe this provides a more "apples-to-apples" comparison.

Another Democratic argument was that lifting the cap would be harmful to conventional public schools.

“We should be talking about the quality of education,” said Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield. “We shouldn't do this. We should be adequately funding the schools we have.”

One House Democrat, Rep. Shenelle Jackson, D-Detroit, voted for the bill. She has testified in favor of charter schools in the past.

Under the version of SB 618 that moved this week, the charter cap elimination would be phased in over the next few years, with no cap beginning in 2015.

Multiple Republican amendments were added to the legislation on the House floor. None, however, were considered problematic from the perspective of charter school supporters. The Senate concurred with the changes on Thursday. Gov Rick Snyder has been supportive of the legislation and is expected to sign it.

Rep. Tyler said she opposed SB 618 because the cap should remain in place for areas where the need for charter schools has yet to be proven.

“While I support successful charter schools, I had some concerns with the way the cap was removed,” she said. “I had wanted to see stronger language regarding the determination of where charter schools are located and would have preferred a gradual raising of the cap over 5-10 years.”

“The city of Detroit has the highest population of failing schools so I do not have a problem removing the cap on charter schools within Detroit,” Rep. Tyler added. “However, a cap should remain in place in other areas unless they prove a greater need like the city of Detroit has. We have made numerous changes to help public schools financially and academically and I would like to give those in trouble some time to start showing improvement. Our students deserve to go to the best schools so having strong standards for achievement across the board, for public and private schools, is also very important.”

Rep. Muxlow said he had more than one reason for voting against SB 618.

“I was guided by where the governor was (in Snyder's original proposal), which was to lift the cap in failing school districts,” he said. “I support charter schools but I disagree with lifting the cap if it includes areas where there are high-performing districts.

“I also have a particular problem with for-profit public schools,” Rep. Muxlow continued. “I've seen information that 79 percent of charter schools are for profit.”

Supporters of SB 618 have argued that many people and entities make profits on traditional public schools, such as software companies, textbook companies, etc. Capitol Confidential has covered this issue: According to the state, charter public schools must be nonprofits.

Rep. McBroom said he voted no because he believes that's what his constituents would have wanted.

“The charter school cap issue was a big issue in my campaign,” he said. “The major concern in my district is that there are 15 school districts in the U.P., lots of private schools, schools of choice and other options. In my district we have a 95 percent graduation rate and don't want to face undue levels of competition. Charter schools are a good tool for failing and under-performing districts. I worked to get a version of the bill I could vote for, but that's not how the final bill turned out.”

Rep. Potvin said he doesn't believe lift the cap for his district makes sense.

“Adding numbers doesn't do anything for quality,” he said. “It's just like the fact that my experiences in urban areas doesn't apply to my district up here. Cadillac has 1,000 students and six options for choice. I learned in business that after you have three choices, adding more just creates ambiguity, confusion and frustration.”

On the vote to concur in the Senate, four Republicans voted “no.” These were: Sens. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights, Bruce Caswell, R-Hillsdale, and Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge.

“I believe we should put all the charters we need into failing school districts,” Sen. Caswell said. “I do not support putting them into areas where there are good schools. This has been my opinion on this ever since I came to this town.”

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.