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Michigan Partnership To Promote Charter Schools

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A Michigan group created to pump up teacher training in the state has put aside that mission for a more glamorous one: charter schools.

The Michigan Partnership for New Education has given up its original plan to pepper the state with teacher training centers to essentially operate a charter school office on the state's behalf. Under the new plan, which the state school board approved last month, the group will receive more than $860,000 in state and federal money to encourage new charter schools.

Its chief goal: to create the 200 charter schools that Gov. John Engler envisioned for the state by the end of next year. The state now has 41 charter schools operating and at least two dozen more on the drawing board.

The Michigan charter law allows groups to create public school academies that operate under minimal state regulations and, in turn, pledge to meet certain performance measures. Mr. Engler, a Republican, has been a leading proponent of the concept, and the gop-controlled legislature is working on a bill that would remove the ceiling on the number of charter schools that can be approved.

Some critics, however, contend that the state may be rushing too fast and too blindly into the charter school experiment. And even proponents fear that handing over the state's charter school promotional efforts to the East Lansing-based Michigan Partnership may be ill-advised.

A Changing Mission

The partnership has endured a rocky history since it was launched in 1989 by Alfred Taubman, a commercial real estate tycoon, and Judith Lanier, the former dean of Michigan State University's school of education and a prominent national figure on issues of teacher professionalism.

With pledges from state lawmakers, business officials, and state colleges, the group intended to create a network of 300 teacher training centers that observers as recently as three years ago labeled "the Cadillac of school-college partnerships."

But the Cadillac now looks more like a Pinto and is only barely still running. Plagued by money troubles and a leadership shake-up that left Ms. Lanier out of the picture, the center has drastically changed its mission. (See Education Week, Dec. 14, 1994.)

The partnership did win a $2 million appropriation from Michigan lawmakers this year to continue the 19 teacher training sites it still operates. But in looking ahead, the partnership's new chief executive, William Coats, had suggested that the group might shift its focus to auditing school quality and maybe even running troubled schools on the state's behalf.

After talks earlier this year and with last month's board vote, the partnership is now in the business of polishing and running the state's charter school bandwagon. And while many of Michigan's Republican leaders are outspoken backers of charter schools and are eager to see new operators recruited, some in the state are raising questions about whether the Michigan Partnership is the best choice to do the job.

Duplication Feared

Dorothy Beardmore, an 11-year member of the state school board who voted against the agreement, voiced concern about the partnership's track record.

She also raised questions about the direction that the Michigan Partnership might take, noting that outspoken proponents of school vouchers are aligned with the group. She fears those ties may prompt the partnership to encourage existing private schools to join the charter school movement instead of campaigning for innovative new public schools.

Officials of the Michigan Partnership, while acknowledging that they have switched gears, said last week such fears were unwarranted. They maintained that they are backers of public schools and have already lent several charter schools the start-up money they needed to open their doors.

The partnership hopes to be in the charter school business itself by next fall. Michael P. Malone, the partnership's chief operating officer, said the goal is to eventually manage up to a half-dozen charter schools.

"We absolutely believe in the public school system," he said. "And we are still a catalyst for K-12 education reform."

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