Mich. Judge Strikes Down Charter Law

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A Michigan judge ruled the state's new charter-school law unconstitutional last week, dealing the charter-school movement a major legal setback.

Michigan's charter schools do not meet the state constitution's definition of public schools, the judge ruled. He also argued that the new law usurps the constitutional power of the state board of education to supervise schools.

Though Gov. John Engler plans to appeal, the decision scrambled his education-reform plans and left uncertain the fate of the eight schools whose charters have been approved by the state superintendent.

In addition, the ruling may fuel opposition in the 11 other states that have charter-school laws. Such laws are intended to foster innovation by allowing groups to apply for charters to operate public schools.

"I don't think that there are a lot of people lying in wait in all those states," said Louann Bierlein, the assistant director of the Morrison decision would certainly bring them out."

Because each state's constitution is different, the issues raised in Michigan would play out in different ways in other charter-school states, Ms. Bierlein suggested.

Opponents of the laws in five states--Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, New Mexico, and Wisconsin--would have a hard time proving in court that charter schools are private since such schools in those states are part of local public districts, Ms. Bierlein said.

But the laws in Arizona and Massachusetts give the state school board little role in charter schools and might be targeted for lawsuits similar to the Michigan challenge, said Joan A. Buckley, the assistant director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers, which opposes charter schools.

Narrow Definition

The Michigan constitution and the state's strong teachers' unions made challenges to the charter-school law--passed barely 10 months ago--all but inevitable.

An amendment to the constitution approved by voters in the early 1970's defines "public school" more narrowly than does almost any other state constitution.

That amendment played a key role in the lawsuit, which was filed last summer after a home-school network received a charter.

Among the plaintiffs were three members of the state school board, including an official of the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union; and the Michigan Council About Parochiaid, a group advocating a strict separation of church and state.

In his decision, Ingham County Circuit Judge William E. Collette acknowledged that groups authorized to grant charters were government entities such as school boards and universities. But, he said, these groups largely relinquish the day-to-day operations of schools to privately elected directors.

In such a structure, where substantial "control of the academy is placed beyond the hands of the public, the constitution has been violated," he wrote.

William F. Young, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the judge recognized that charter schools operate with no state influence.

"They are not accountable to anyone," he said. "That lack of accountability troubled the judge."

A Partisan Decision?

Supporters of the law called the decision a partisan one that reflected the thinking of a lower-court judge unaccustomed to analyzing the state constitution.

"The Engler Administration never wins in Ingham County court," said Fred Wszolek, the spokesman for Sen. Dick Posthumus, the Republican majority leader of the state Senate and the chief sponsor of the law.

"You could declare Tuesday an official day of the week and that would be overturned in Ingham County," Mr. Wszolek added.

John T. Truscott, a spokesman for Governor Engler, said that if the constitution is read literally, the legislature can define public schools any way it desires.

G.O.P. legislators probably will decide after this week's elections whether to rewrite the law, said Sen. Dan L. DeGrow.

"I think we could easily define the role of the authorizing bodies more clearly," he said.

Impact on Schools

In the meantime, the eight schools granted charters are stuck with start-up loans and no state aid to keep their doors open, said Barbara Barrett, the executive director of the Michigan Center for Charter Schools, a nonprofit group that supports charter schools.

Several of the schools once were private, and may revert to charging tuition. Others are seeking donors.

"They're looking for angels," Ms. Barrett said.

Meanwhile, a founder of the Noah Webster Academy, the home-school network at the center of the dispute, said it had not taken out any loans, anticipating that controversy would derail its funding.

The state schools superintendent last month disallowed aid payments to the school, and its 20 staff members are working as volunteers, said David A. Kallman, a lawyer who helped win the school's charter. (See Education Week, Nov. 2, 1994.)

Vol. 14, Issue 10

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