News Story

Challenging the Rhetoric in the War on Charter Public Schools

Q&A with the Democrats pursuing a moratorium on school choice

On Sept. 18, House Democrats announced legislation that would place a moratorium on opening any additional charter public schools in Michigan. While House Bill 5852 isn’t expected to move in the waning days of this session, the press conference announcing it gave the lawmakers who support the moratorium a chance to make their case.

The opportunity to directly respond to such rhetoric seldom occurs. At the press conference however, Capitol Confidential was able to ask questions. The following is one of those questions and the response to it, followed by a rebuttal to that response by Michael Van Beek, director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Capitol Confidential: “You talk about for-profit charter companies, but conventional school districts have been spending millions of dollars and some of them have had failing schools for years and are still operating, why are you holding charters to a different standard?”

Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores: “I wouldn’t say we’re holding them to a different standard and I’d love to hear Rep. Lipton’s comment on this. We’re working to address all forms of education here in Michigan, but what has been found and reported in the (Detroit) Free Press and with the superintendent calling on the Legislature to address charter schools, that’s what we’re doing and taking this first step with the moratorium.”

Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods: “What our task force found was that is exactly not the case. We do know that public dollars are being spent with our community-based public schools. We know because the meetings are being held publicly because any parent can go and find out where the money is being spent; we know how the money is being spent. Now, people may question how it is being spent, they might not agree with it, and that of course is the basis of democracy, right?

“In an open school board meeting and challenging the community members that are governing the schools . . . the problem is that charter schools are operating on a completely different set of standards,” Rep. Lipton continued. “There are charter schools that do hold meetings out of state, not even in the state which they are operating. So the likelihood that a parent is going to actually really know how the money is being spent in that school is sort of next to nothing; they’re not going to travel out of state. The likelihood of them traveling out of state and questioning the board on how that money is being spent is virtually nonexistent. So, your question is interesting but it actually goes to the heart of forming a task force . . . that charter schools are operating on a completely different set of principles.”

Michael Van Beek’s response: “Charter public schools have to comply with the exact same financial transparency requirements as regular public schools. Their boards must comply with the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act, just like regular school districts. And charter school boards also make their policies, agendas and minutes available online.

“In addition to this board-related transparency and reporting, charter schools must and do provide financial transparency for parents and the public,” Van Beek continued. “One can find information about the school’s budget, which provides data on how much the school allocates for basic instruction, special education, instructional support, administration and much more. Charters are also required to post their operating expenditures online, which show what was actually spent on these same items in the previous fiscal year. And, unlike regular public school districts, charter schools have to post detailed information about employee compensation, including the minimum, average and maximum salaries of superintendents, teachers and principals.

“Finally, charter schools have to report their finances to the state just like every other public school. And so you can find additional fiscal information about charter schools in publicly available reports like the Michigan Department of Education’s Bulletin 1014, which provides per-pupil revenue and spending data.

“All told, it doesn’t take much more than 15 or 20 minutes of time online to find a lot of financial information about an individual charter public school. Based on this, it seems that the recent charge to hold charter schools to a new transparency standard is a ‘solution’ in search of a problem.”

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.